Embrace the Uncertainty of the Midterms

15 Sep, 2022


Election Impact

September 2022

Embrace the Uncertainty of the Midterms

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

Be open-minded about possibilities. That should have been one of the main takeaways from the 2016 presidential race, and it’s still relevant today as these midterms could evolve into something different than expected six or 12 months ago.

One of the biggest mistakes any political handicapper or observer can make is being certain of what’s going to happen in an election months before it takes place and not being willing to adapt or change that perspective.

I’ve talked to many groups over the past year and a half and encouraged people to stay open-minded. Instead of making one prediction about November 2022, I’ve been laying out three different midterm scenarios in order of their likelihood.

For virtually the entire cycle, I’ve rolled out those scenarios in the same order. The most likely scenario was a GOP sweep of Congress. The second scenario was more of a split decision with a Republican House majority and an evenly divided Senate. The third scenario, Democrats’ expanding their majorities, unintentionally became a punchline in many of my speeches.

It was a perfectly reasonable and defensible analysis. Democrats have such narrow majorities in the House and the Senate, midterm elections typically go poorly for the president’s party, President Joe Biden’s job approval rating has been mediocre for a year, and there isn’t a clear historical case of a party in power improving its electoral prospects just a few months before the election. Typically, it’s a downward slide to the end.

But this cycle is testing those trends, and it’s time to reorder the potential outcomes for the fall.

While major events are rarely political game changers, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision was just that. Overturning Roe v. Wade energized Democratic voters who had grown apathetic with President Donald Trump out of the White House and who were disappointed in the early performance of Biden and Democrats in Congress.

At the most basic level, if Democratic voters vote for Democratic candidates at the same rate that Republican voters vote for Republican candidates, it will limit the GOP’s takeover opportunities. Earlier in the cycle, Republicans were set up for big gains with a combination of an electrified GOP base, independent voters upset about the economy, and either disaffected Democratic voters or regular Democratic voters just staying home.

The midterm dynamic has also shifted a bit with independent voters. Republicans want them to remain focused on high gas prices, inflation, supply chain issues, crime and immigration. But they are now considering efforts by Republicans in various states to restrict all access to legal abortion and are consistently reminded about life under Trump with his various legal problems and investigations.

The 2022 elections are becoming more of a choice, rather than a straight referendum on Biden and the Democratic Party. That benefits Democrats, and that means the most likely scenario is a Republican takeover of the House and a Democratic Senate. What was the second most likely outcome is now the first.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans can’t or won’t win. They don’t need a political wave to win back the House and the Senate, because the Democratic majorities are so narrow. A GOP sweep of Congress is still a possibility and is close behind the new first scenario.

Digging deeper beneath the surface, polling in individual House races doesn’t yet match the national narrative of a Democratic surge fueled by Democratic overperformance in recent special elections, taking the lead on the national generic ballot, and modest improvement in Biden’s job rating. It has become clearer that GOP dreams of winning districts that Biden carried by eight or 10 points or more in 2020 are probably gone. But Republicans don’t need to win those seats for a majority.

The fight for individual seats is what matters most. The polling could be a lagging indicator, or the national dynamic and special election outcomes may be aberrations and distractions.

The third scenario — Democratic expansion — is still the least likely of the three outcomes, but shouldn’t be laughed off. Particularly with the struggles of some GOP nominees, it doesn’t take much imagination to see Democrats picking up a seat or two in the Senate. The House is objectively more difficult, but it is possible for Democrats to gain seats if independent voters decide en masse that they don’t trust Republicans to govern. If that happens, the Republican blame game will be well worth any price of admission.

The uncertainty of the elections is unsettling for anyone trying to make accurate projections. But that uncertainty is an opportunity for groups and individuals looking to get involved. As the fight for both the House and the Senate has narrowed, literally every seat could matter, making it easier to explain why getting involved is important.

Additional Resources

Related Article: What If It’s All Wrong? 

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