President Biden is running out of time. He has until November 8 to improve both his own political standing and public attitudes toward the Democratic Party. Otherwise, his tenuous congressional majorities—222–212 in the House of Representatives and 50–50 in the Senate—will disappear. Every morning brings him another reminder of his dilemma. Every morning brings him one step closer to what’s shaping up to be the biggest political shellacking in more than a decade.
The odds are not in Biden’s favor. Historical precedent is against him. Only twice in the last century has the president’s party gained seats in its first midterm. Both situations were unique. In 1934, FDR’s Democrats benefited from an enormous amount of support for the New Deal. In 2002 George W. Bush’s Republicans gained from the surge in patriotism and hawkishness after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Public admiration for the leadership styles of both presidents was visible in their high job-approval ratings. That goodwill translated into gains for their parties. There is no parallel today.
On the contrary: Biden’s numbers drag his party down. A president’s job approval is highly correlated with his party’s performance in off-year elections. As I write in early February, Biden’s job approval is 11 points underwater in the FiveThirtyEight.com average of polls. According to the Gallup organization, Biden’s average first-year approval rating ranked second-to-last among post–World War II presidents. The only president with worse numbers during his first year was Donald Trump, who lost 42 House seats in 2018. The average loss by a president whose approval rating is under 50 percent is 37 House seats. Biden can afford to lose five. In the Senate, he can’t lose any.
The electorate’s negative attitude toward Biden extends to his party. It is rare for Republicans to lead the congressional generic ballot. But that is what they have been doing since last November, according to the FiveThirtyEight.com polling average. The two-point GOP lead is slim. It is also durable. And it’s been growing since the beginning of this year.
It is also unusual for Republicans to lead in party identification. Typically, Republicans run behind Democrats in party ID. They win majorities by leveraging support among independents. In January, however, the Gallup organization released a stunning finding: When Americans were asked to make a binary choice between Republicans and Democrats, Republicans held a five-point lead in party identification. That is the GOP’s greatest advantage since the first quarter of 1995, when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Then there is money. It is not dispositive in politics. Plenty of candidates outraise their opponents but don’t win. The best example of this limitation is former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent $1 billion of his own money in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. All he had to show for it was five delegates from American Samoa.
What money does tell you is who donors believe will win. Now dollars are flowing to Republicans. Take the political action committees (PACs). Unlike candidates, PACs are allowed to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money. And Republican-aligned PACs outraised their Democratic counterparts by $25 million during the last six months of 2021. Republican-aligned PACs begin 2022 with over $30 million more on hand than Democratic PACs. The cash hoard is a gauge of Republican donor enthusiasm for the midterm campaign.
Another measure of GOP excitement is found in polling data that show Republicans are more enthusiastic about the election than Democrats by double digits. Conservative energy is evident in the raucous school-board meetings denouncing critical race theory (CRT), remote learning, and mandatory masking. Glenn Youngkin’s come-from-behind win in the Virginia governor’s race last year fed Republicans’ expectations of victory.
Partisan enthusiasm is a zero-sum game. The better Republicans feel about their chances, the more pessimistic Democrats become. Want proof? At this writing, 29 House Democrats have announced their retirements. That number isn’t a ceiling. It’s a floor.
“The red wave is coming. Period. End of discussion,” GOP strategist Corry Bliss told the New York Times recently. Times reporters Blake Hounshell and Leah Askarinam searched for reasons Bliss might be wrong. They came up with seven potential obstacles to a Republican landslide: high turnout among Democrats, a return of normalcy, a winning communications strategy, favorable gerrymanders, backlash against a possible reversal of Roe v. Wade, GOP extremism, and the return of Trump to the center of political debate.
All possible. And all improbable. It is telling that most of the game changers listed in the Times are beyond Biden’s control. The best way to turn out Democrats, for instance, is to have Donald Trump on the ballot. That won’t happen until at least 2024. Nor do Democrats choose GOP nominees. Republicans do. State governments oversee redistricting. The Supreme Court will determine the fate of Roe. And “normalcy” won’t return until inflation falls and Biden resists his overly cautious medical advisers, repudiates the teachers’ unions, and disincentivizes illegal immigration. As for a winning message, Biden had one in 2020. Then he forgot it.
You know what happened next. Historian Jon Meacham convinced Biden that he—yes, he—was the second coming of FDR and LBJ. The president embarked on a transformative agenda with the smallest Democratic majorities in more than a century. The success of his bipartisan infrastructure bill was lost amid news of chaos on the southern border, the Delta variant, retreat in Afghanistan, and rising inflation and crime.
Biden doubled down. He whipped support for his multi-trillion-dollar Build Back Better legislation despite opposition from within his own party. He was unpersuasive. Build Back Better died. Biden said that opponents of his election-takeover proposals stood on the same side of the issue as Jefferson Davis and George Wallace. His words had no effect. The election bills died, too. Biden couldn’t convince 50 Democratic senators to modify or abolish the legislative filibuster. Indeed, Biden seems unable to convince anyone of anything.
Biden is so desperate for a win that his chief of staff purposely leaked news of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement. Biden assumes that keeping his promise to nominate the first black woman to the Supreme Court will turn the tide in his favor. This is wishful thinking. Seventy-six percent of Americans told ABC pollsters after Breyer’s announcement that Biden should ignore his campaign pledge and consider “all possible nominees.” Even if Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee act obnoxiously while questioning the nominee—a distinct possibility—the hearings will be a distant memory by Election Day. Voters are more likely to remember promises that Biden made but did not keep: that he would “shut down the virus,” that inflation would be “temporary,” and that the Afghanistan withdrawal was an “extraordinary success.”
At the beginning of this year, longtime Democratic strategist James Carville appeared on Meet the Press to offer his party advice. “Just quit being a whiny party,” Carville said, “and get out there and fight and tell people what you did, and tell people the exact truth.” Carville was as feisty—and as wrong—as ever. People know the exact truth of what Joe Biden has done. That’s why his party is in trouble.
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