According to Gallup, 56 percent of Americans disapprove of President Biden’s work. Around 80 percent say the country is on the wrong track. 82 percent say the state of the economy is “fair” or “poor,” and 67 percent think it’s only going to get worse.
Midterm elections are typically bad for the president’s party. But a half-time next to such disappointment with the President and his party? It should be catastrophic.
And yet the election doesn’t look like it, at least for the moment. The FiveThirtyEight forecast gives Democrats about a 1-in-3 chance of holding the House and about a 2-in-3 chance of holding the Senate. Other predictions, along with betting markets, tell similar stories.
Perhaps the polls, which have tightened somewhat in recent weeks, are underestimating Republican turnout. We’ve seen it before and, worryingly for Democrats, we’ve seen it in some of the states that need them most to win this year. But even a strong Republican performance would be a far cry from the party’s power wipeouts we saw in 1994, 2010, and 2018. It’s worth asking why.
Biden’s absence and Trump’s presence
Start with the seats that the parties are now occupying. Only seven Democrats in the House of Representatives won electoral districts carried by Trump in 2020. Democrats aren’t defending many of the crossover seats that led to huge losses in 2010 and 1994. On the other hand, the Senate map is pretty good for Democrats, with Republicans defending more seats.
Then of course there are the Dobbs Decision that led to a surge in Democrat interest and the enrollment of young women. Every candidate, strategist, and analyst I’ve spoken to on both sides of the aisle believes Dobbs transformed this election. The question they ponder is whether that energy will wane as the months tick by and the election approaches.
But there’s something else skewing this race: Biden’s relative absence and Trump’s unusual presence.
Here’s a curious fact: “Trump” has been leading “Biden” in Google searches since July. During the same period of 2018, Trump was well ahead of Obama in search interest, and during that period of 2010, Obama was ahead of Bush. This is the normal case: Midterms are a referendum on the incumbent. The ousted or retired predecessor rarely plays a role. But this half is different.
Trump has pushed JD Vance in Ohio and Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania – all of whom are underperforming in their respective matchups.
Trump’s relentless presence in our politics comes from a few sources. One is, well, Trump. He never stops talking, insulting, complaining, flattering, provoking. He is publicly preparing for an election campaign in 2024. As I was writing this article, I received an email from “Donald J. Trump” headlined “Corrupt News Network” announcing that Trump is filing a defamation lawsuit against CNN. This isn’t a guy trying to stay out of the news.
Then there are the unusual consequences of the Trump presidency, which reverberate throughout our politics. The Jan. 6 investigation is ongoing, and the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago to recover classified documents Trump allegedly inappropriately took. (For his part, Trump recently told Sean Hannity that the president can release documents “even if he’s thinking about it,” what, sigh.)
Trump also bears responsibility for some of the lackluster candidates causing such problems for Republicans. Trump has pushed JD Vance in Ohio and Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania – all of whom are underperforming in their respective matchups. In a speech to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Mitch McConnell admitted that Republicans might not turn the Senate around, noting sharply, “The quality of the candidates has a lot to do with the outcome.”
Less talking, more action
However, Trump’s efforts to stay in the news will be outpaced by Biden’s efforts to stay out of it. Biden gives shockingly few interviews and press conferences. He’s not into attention-grabbing stunts or high-engagement tweets. I’m not always sure if this is strategy or necessity: it’s not obvious to me that the Biden team trusts him to use face-to-face meetings and press conferences to his advantage. But perhaps the difference is academic: good strategy sometimes emerges from an unwanted reality.
Biden just doesn’t take up much space in the political discourse. He is a far less central, compelling and controversial figure than Trump, Obama or Bush were before him. He has achieved a surprising amount in the last few months, but then fades into the background again. That, too, is a choice: Biden could easily garner more attention simply by trying to garner more attention. When he picks a fight, as he did last month in his Philadelphia speech on Trump, the MAGA movement and democracy, the fight joins. He just doesn’t do it often.
Which doesn’t mean Biden isn’t doing anything. He governs. Just this week, Biden pardoned all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. Before that, he canceled hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt (although legal and administrative issues continue to swirl around that plan). He signed the Anti-Inflation Act. But then he goes on. He doesn’t want to turn his political ideas into culture wars.
Biden didn’t win the 2020 Democratic nomination because he was the most exciting candidate or because he had legions of die-hard supporters. The most common argument for Biden was that other people would find him acceptable. And that has come true. Biden managed to assemble an unusually broad coalition of people who feared Trump and thought Biden was, uh, good. This strategy called for restraint. Many politicians would have fought with Trump for the election. Biden held back and let Trump make the choice over himself.
You don’t have to love or even really like Biden to support him. You must believe in him as a means to stop something worse. That still applies today.
I suspect that’s one of the reasons Biden’s approval rating is and has been weak. Biden’s appeal to Democrats was more transactional than inspirational. You don’t have to love or even really like Biden to support him. You must believe in him as a means to stop something worse. That still applies today.
What I never realized was what Biden and the Democrats would do if Trump wasn’t on the ballot — if Biden had to drive the Democratic enthusiasm alone. But Biden is pursuing a surprisingly similar strategy in 2022 as he was in 2020, with some signs of success. He doesn’t try to attract the country’s attention day after day. And that has given way to Trump and the Supreme Court and a slew of sketchy Republican candidates to make themselves history and remind Democrats of what’s at stake in 2022.
I’m too burned by recent electoral failures to take for granted a decent Democratic year. Republican victories in both the House and Senate wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. But it’s worth noting: At this point in 2010, Republicans were far more enthusiastic about the election than Democrats. At this point in 2018, Democrats were more enthusiastic about voting than Republicans. This year? It’s roughly even, with some polls even showing a slight lead for the Democrats.
If those numbers hold up and Democrats avoid a November wipeout, Biden will owe Trump a fruit basket.
© New York Times