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Presidential approval, election mandates and the midterm dynamic

Current politics might be altering the degree to which history can be a guide for 2022

A trailer with messages supporting former President Donald Trump and Doug Mastriano, Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, is seen last month along I-76 in western Pennsylvania.
A trailer with messages supporting former President Donald Trump and Doug Mastriano, Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, is seen last month along I-76 in western Pennsylvania. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

My first taste covering House and Senate elections was in June 1980, when I arrived in Washington, D.C., to write for an obscure newsletter, The Political Report. Two years later, I covered my first midterm.

The 1980 election was a blowout. Republican Ronald Reagan crushed the incumbent president, Democrat Jimmy Carter, and the GOP added 35 seats in the House, though the party was still in the minority. Even more impressive, Republicans added a dozen Senate seats, giving them a majority in that body for the first time since 1955. (One of those victorious Republicans was a young conservative from Iowa named Charles E. Grassley, who ousted incumbent Democrat John Culver by 8 points.)

But the Reagan revolution had to be put on hold. Two years later, amid high interest rates and an unemployment rate that hit 10 percent, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House. The Senate, however, was a wash, largely because there were only 13 GOP seats up, compared to 19 Democratic seats. 

I’ve covered nine midterm elections since then. A few times, House losses by the president’s party have been minimal — in the single digits in 1986 and 1990, and just 13 seats in 2014 — but some have been political waves heavily favoring one party — as in 1994, 2010 and 2018.

Depending largely on which party has more Senate seats at risk, I’ve seen small shifts in the Senate (in 1990 and 2018, for example) and huge Senate tsunamis, as in 1986 and 2014.

After almost each election, the winning party found a convenient message in the election results, and — surprise, surprise! — it was that the voters didn’t like the direction of the country and wanted Washington to change course.

The voters, we were told, wanted bigger or smaller government (take your pick), more spending on social welfare programs or less (again, choose one), action to stop the rise of unemployment or inflation or interest rates, and (fill-in-the-blank) on cultural matters and defense spending.

That, of course, is a lot of baloney. When voters are unhappy, they want change. That’s about it, which is why most midterms are about how disappointed, disillusioned and angry voters are with the president’s performance. 

We do have big, thematic elections, but they almost always occur during presidential elections, not midterms. Midterms tend to be referenda on the occupant of the Oval Office.

Given President Joe Biden’s job approval ratings, which have been mired in the low- to mid-40s, the Democrats should be headed for a wipeout. And they may be.

Combine an unpopular president, inflation, the mess at the border, the Republicans’ ability to use “crime” as an issue, and speculation about an approaching recession, and there is little reason to believe that Democrats can avoid the sort of huge House losses that befell Bill Clinton in 1994 (54 seats), Barack Obama in 2010 (64 seats) and Donald Trump in 2018 (42 seats).

And if the old rule of thumb holds this year that all or most of the close races fall one way (usually against the president’s party), the Democrats could be in for a one-two punch to the gut that hands the GOP comfortable control of both chambers of Congress.

That is not a prediction. It is merely an acknowledgement that if history is any guide, Democrats are in for a nasty night on Election Day.

When voters are unhappy, they send a message of dissatisfaction. Never mind the causes of their unhappiness or whether the president can reasonably be held responsible for the bad news. Jerome Powell? Who is he? And what the hell is the Federal Reserve?

Because of that, Republicans don’t need a positive agenda this year. They merely need a lot of warm bodies with pulses — backed by millions of advertising dollars — to create a wider playing field on Election Day, which could maximize their gains if a GOP wave develops.

Of course, Democrats are hoping that an unusually strong turnout by younger voters and an unusually strong showing among women and independents will minimize the damage, maybe even allowing Democrats to keep control of the Senate. For some Americans, abortion rights, democracy and the rule of law really matter.

It’s possible that Trump has so changed our politics that presidential job approval, the direction of the country and the generic ballot no longer presage what will happen in the 2022 midterms. That would be good news for Democrats.

But that would be a dramatic break from past voter behavior, which is why Republicans are so optimistic about the midterms and Democrats so nervous.

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