What economic and political indicators tell us about the 2022 midterms – Grid News
What economic and political indicators tell us about the 2022 midterms

Republicans are confident about the 2022 midterms. “I’ve been telling Democrats, especially Democrats in targeted areas, enjoy the holidays, and you got a decision to make,” Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer told the Hill, “retire or lose next fall.”

Recent trends suggest that the 2022 midterms could look a lot like those a decade ago: Barack Obama may have been able to turn out a historically diverse coalition of voters in 2008, but in 2010 Democrats lost 63 seats in the House, and Republicans gained seven seats in the Senate.

Over the last few decades, social scientists, economists, campaign organizers and pollsters have debated which indicators best predict how a political party will perform in a midterm election. In 2022, Democrats are on the wrong side of all of them.

Indicator one: A united Washington

One of the clearest predictors of midterm outcomes is whether Congress is united or divided. If one party controls both chambers and the executive branch, the other party feels a duty to show up at the polls. The phenomenon is called “ideological balancing.”

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In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Politics, political scientists Joseph Bafumi, Christopher Wlezien and Robert S. Erikson analyzed vote patterns between 1946 and 2006. They found that a party typically earns 2.6 percentage points more of the House vote in presidential election years than when it wins the White House, while it gains 4.1 percentage points more of the House vote in midterm elections when it loses.

“By putting their collective thumbs on the scale in favor of the out party at midterm, voters move policy back toward the center,” the scholars wrote. “Sentiments toward balancing emerge and grow as campaigns focus voters on their vote decisions.”

Today in Washington, Democrats control the White House, House and Senate — a scenario that led to a flip in control of at least one chamber of Congress in at least seven midterm elections since World War II.

Indicator two: The map

Republicans need to gain only five seats to dethrone House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and one seat to retake the Senate. The geographical distribution of seats could give Republicans those seats before ballots are even cast.

Thirty-four Senate seats are up for grabs in November, but some of the most competitive are in Alaska, where former president Donald Trump is seeking revenge against Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski for voting in favor of his impeachment; Georgia, where Sen. Raphael Warnock’s razor-thin victory gave Democrats control of the Senate in 2020; and North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Richard Burr is retiring.

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The House serves a bigger challenge: Of the 435 seats up for grabs, 18 House Democrats have already announced their retirement. A recent New York Times analysis estimates that Republicans could gain at least five seats just through redistricting alone.

Republicans are also outraising Democrats so far: According to another memo, the NRCC raised over $105 million to date, a 74 percent increase over the same period last cycle.

Republicans are redrawing congressional districts in their favor across the country. As of the end of the year, about 220 of the 435 House districts have had their lines redrawn. Eighty-eight of them supported Biden with 15 or more points in 2020, but the new maps have added 18 districts that would have supported Trump by a similar margin, bringing the total to 74 strong red districts.

In Texas, for example, the state legislature erased a congressional district predominantly filled with Latinos, even though the population growth led by Latinos in the past decade helped the state gain a new seat. The Justice Department recently sued Texas over its new maps, arguing that the state “refused to recognize the State’s growing minority electorate” in its complaint.

Similarly, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature packed Democratic-leaning urban voters into one district each in Charlotte and Raleigh, which Democrats say will dilute their voters’ electoral influence and make it overall a deeper shade of red.

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North Carolina Republicans’ proposed redrawn maps are expected to hand them control of at least 10 of the state’s 14 districts even though the state is very closely divided in presidential elections.

“When you look at what is likely to happen with redistricting, I think it favors them,” Liz Mair, a Republican strategist and former communications director for the Republican National Committee, told Grid. “It looks like redder states are picking up more districts, [considering] the way those districts are being drawn.”

As more maps are finalized, it looks as though Democrats could gain a few more Biden-won seats than they had before 2021. But there are still 230 House seats in Republican-leaning districts compared with the 205 Democratic-leaning ones, and Republicans have used this redistricting cycle to consolidate their majorities. Either way, a slight advantage probably isn’t enough to save the Democrats’ majority in Congress.

Indicator three: It’s the economy

While Beltway scandals and foreign policy blunders come and go, the economic state of the country — and voters themselves — plays a large part in voting decisions in any election. Thanks to the complicated economic recovery from the covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. has fallen victim to high inflationary numbers that economists worry might linger.

Inflation reached a 39-year high in November: Prices are up 6.8 percent now than they were over the previous year. And even as unemployment lowers and wages rise, voters have little faith in the direction the economy is headed — and in the Democrats to fix it.


A preliminary poll from University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index found that public opinion on the economy had dropped to 66.2 points, the lowest it’s been since the Great Recession. And in early December, the Wall Street Journal released a poll finding that 44 percent of voters believed that Republicans could get inflation under control, compared with 26 percent who believed in the Democrats.

Indicator four: Is Joe special?

Midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the president — and Biden’s approval rating has been sitting at 43 percent — with 53 percent disapproval, according to RealClearPolitics.

“The ballot box is the vehicle used to indicate policy preferences,” Gayle Alberda, an assistant professor of politics and public policy at Fairfield University and an expert in political participation, told Grid. “If the party in power is doing well, voters tend to reward that party during midterm elections” by reelecting incumbents or adding more seats. But if the party falters, they tend to lose seats.

“Midterm elections are, in a way, a referendum on the chief executive,” Alberda said.

The question is whether Biden can turn his job approval around. There is a history of the party in power keeping its hold on Congress in off-year elections, but mostly in special cases. Incumbent parties gained seats in both houses in 1934 and 2002, for example, during years of great political upheaval in the president’s favor.

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept a stronghold on Congress after beating incumbent Herbert Hoover, who had fumbled the Great Depression, by a landslide in 1932. And the 9/11 attacks still lived in the minds of voters in 2002, leading Republicans to gain a majority in Congress even with President George W. Bush in office.

“The stalemate in Congress on Biden’s key legislative priorities as well as the intraparty fighting among Congressional Democrats creates an impression that Democrats cannot get the job done,” Alberda said. “Voters may have asked themselves, ‘If they can’t get it done in Washington, how are they going to get it done here?’ and vote for Republican candidates.”

But Republicans can’t count on dramatic events in the Capitol to resonate with voters a year from now.

What made Democrats so concerned about the midterms was last year’s gubernatorial performance in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republicans gained an astonishing 12 points in both places. If that’s any indicator of where the electorate is this fall, things look grim for Democrats. Republicans say the reason Gov. Glenn Youngkin won is he spoke directly to the voters.

Voters focus mostly on domestic issues, such as the economy and, most recently, the covid-19 pandemic. If the virus is suppressed, mask mandates are lifted and the economy bounces back, Biden could fare like Bush, Clinton and FDR before him and help Democrats gain more seats.

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As George Hawley, an associate professor of politics at the University of Alabama who specializes in electoral behavior, notes, “A year is a long time in politics.”

Resources:

“Balancing, Generic Polls and Midterm Congressional Elections” by Joseph Bafumi, Dartmouth College, Robert S. Erikson, Columbia University, and Christopher Wlezien, Temple University

United States of America v. State of Texas and John Scott http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2021/images/12/06/complaint.pdf

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  • Kaila Philo
    Kaila Philo

    Government and Political Institutions Reporter

    Kaila Philo is a reporter at Grid where she focuses on the U.S. government and political institutions.