Dems’ midterm prospects are bleak – but they could get worse

By Douglas Schoen

Democrats are widely expected to lose control of Congress in the midterm elections. At this point, the question is not “if” Republicans will flip the House — and likely the Senate — but rather, by how many seats.

The president’s approval rating — which has historically been a harbinger of his party’s midterm performance — is underwater: Just 38% of registered voters approve of Joe Biden, while 57% disapprove, per a recent Quinnipiac poll. Further, the vast majority of the public (80%) is dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today.

While some Democrats were optimistic that the news of Roe v. Wade being overturned would improve their political prospects by galvanizing their base, that seems unlikely. Republicans still lead the generic congressional vote by 4 points — and by 6 points with Independents — and maintain a 10 point voter enthusiasm advantage, with 56% of Republicans saying they are more motivated to vote than usual, compared to 46% of Democrats.

Clearly, the Democratic Party already faces an uphill battle in November. But now, three developing issues – with respect to the economy, the pandemic, and the Southern border crisis – threaten to make matters even worse for Democrats, especially given the lack of direction, strategy and leadership from the administration on each.

First, there’s the potentially worsening state of the economy.

Inflation and high gas prices — which are very politically powerful trends, given their tangible impact on every American — will still be persistent problems in November. In poll after poll, voters cite rising prices as the most urgent issue facing the country, and express deeply negative views of the economy and of President Biden’s handling of it, despite historically low unemployment and increased wages.

In that sense, the White House has clearly failed to develop a compelling and reassuring economic message — as only 19% of Americans rate the economy as “excellent” or “good.” Americans also largely disapprove of President Biden’s economic leadership (63%) — including 68% of Independents — and two-thirds (67%) believe he bears at least some responsibility for inflation.

Unfortunately for Democrats, economists are predicting things will get worse before they get better. Consumer prices are not expected to stabilize soon, a recession is probable, and gas prices will remain high, as the administration also lacks a solution to America’s energy needs in light of our severed ties with Russia.

As things stand, the annual inflation rate was recorded at a staggering 8.3% at the end of April, and the average price for a gallon of gas in the U.S. is currently $4.60, which is nearly double what it was when Joe Biden took office.

In an effort to cool off inflation, the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates. Though this was a necessary step, it precipitated two politically inconvenient outcomes for Democrats: caused a sharp downturn in the stock market, and drove fears of a recession, as 85% of Americans now say the economy is likely to experience a recession this year.

Second, is the lingering — and arguably intensifying — COVID-19 pandemic.

President Biden won the 2020 election by positioning himself as a steady-handed leader who could bring an end to the pandemic. In that respect, he essentially tied Democrats’ 2022 political fortunes to COVID-19 improving.

Early on in his term, Americans largely felt that President Biden was making good on his promise — the American Rescue Plan passed, and his administration dramatically accelerated of the pace of vaccinations.

But as the Delta variant surged last summer, the public grew frustrated over the lingering virus and the White House’s mixed-messaging on the effectiveness of vaccines. Further, pandemic-induced supply-chain bottle-necks and labor shortages began undercutting the quality and speed of services that American consumers are used to. Around that time, Biden’s approval rating dropped, and has not recovered since.

Then, when the Omicron variant took hold last winter, the administration again struggled to communicate about the effectiveness of booster shots. Additionally, many of the restrictions, closures and mandates imposed in Democratic-led cities were ultimately not backed by a science-based approach, and Democrats became associated with these arduous bans.

Now, cases are once again on the rise, and the White House is warning of a surge this fall and winter. The administration still lacks a cogent pandemic message, and Republicans in Congress recently blocked the White House’s request for another COVID-19 relief package, leaving Democrats without an alternative path forward.

Finally, there’s immigration — namely, the crisis at the Southern border, which continues to metastasize.

Given the uneven leadership from the administration during this crisis, Republicans have been mostly successful in tying the situation at the Southern border to President Biden’s failed policies, and to a broader narrative that Democrats are weak, ineffective and support lawlessness. Now, roughly 6-in-10 Americans (58%) disapprove of Biden’s handling of this crisis.

Indeed, the Biden administration has frequently exhibited internal division and paralysis on immigration policy, which has angered Republicans and activists on the left alike.

The only meaningful action the administration has taken on immigration is trying to repeal Title 42 — a Trump-era rule that gives the president power to prevent immigration in times of public health emergencies — which would have realistically made the situation at the border even worse.

To note, there are several other ongoing national emergencies that could cause Democrats’ prospects to deteriorate further: surging crime in major cities, the severe infant formula shortage, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The U.S. has sent roughly $40 billion to help the Ukrainians fight Russia — which is likely the right decision — however, this price tag may prove increasingly difficult to defend as the election approaches.

But ultimately, if the Biden administration neglects to propose practical solutions to these three main worsening crises — the economy, the pandemic and immigration — the Democratic Party will be at even greater risk of a historic rout in the midterm elections.

Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.

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