Democrats weren’t supposed to feel this way about the midterms.
Not only did they face the strong historical trend of backlash to the president’s party in their first midterm election — a fate the last two presidents suffered and that George W. Bush avoided only by whit of 9/11 — but they were also being dragged down by President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings cratered to below 40 percent. Just last fall, Republicans won all three top statewide offices in Virginia, a state that Biden won just a year prior, and almost pulled off an upset in New Jersey, a Democratic haven.
But something has changed. A more recent spate of special elections has buoyed Democrats’ hopes. The obvious reason is the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, triggering restrictive anti-abortion laws across the country and reactive ballot referendums in states like Kansas and Michigan.
But there’s another story to tell. The combination of gas prices peaking and the Dobbs decision coming down at nearly the exact same time “synced up in the most optimal way imaginable for Democrats,” Republican lobbyist Liam Donovan told Grid.
That gas prices, presidential approval and the Democrats’ standing in the 2022 midterms are all linked should not be surprising. There’s a long historical record showing that high gas prices can bring down presidential approval, and lower presidential approval is associated with bigger midterm losses. But not every first half of a presidential term features an event that shifts the political world on its axis — and does so on the terms of the party out of power, leaving them defending a massive change in the status quo while at the same time fighting for a majority.
The decline in gas prices “leaves Republicans in a weird spot where they don’t have the same cudgels,” Donovan said, while the Dobbs decision means “they’re on their heels in other respects.”
The numbers that have improved for Democrats
Gas prices peaked on June 13 at just over $5, according to the Energy Information Administration. Since then, they’ve fallen about a quarter to $3.75 and, while Americans certainly aren’t satisfied with the economy, there are signs they’re a bit more optimistic, or at least aren’t as concerned.
In June, 40 percent of survey respondents told Gallup that something related to the economy was the most important problem facing the country, with about half of those people specifically mentioning gas prices or the cost of living. In May, it was 37 percent, and in April it was 39 percent. In July, the most recent month in which Gallup has published this data, the portion dropped to 35 percent. And more recent data shows that expectations for future inflation have fallen and how people feel about the economy has improved.
These trends have been borne out on the electoral map in a series of special elections following the Dobbs decision and the decline in gas prices where Democrats have outperformed, including winning a Trump-voting seat in the Hudson River Valley, flipping Alaska’s statewide House seat, and performing substantially better than Biden in expected losses in western New York, Nebraska and Minnesota. Biden’s approval now sits at almost 43 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, after floundering below 40 percent from mid-June to early August. And Democrats’ polling standing on the generic congressional ballot has improved from 2.5 points below the Republicans to a 1-point lead.
The country’s rightward lurch on abortion policy put Republicans on the defensive, squeezed between maximalist anti-abortion positions and public opinion on abortion that, while ambivalent, tends to support some legal protections. The Supreme Court decision also seems to have fired up Democratic voters, especially in low-turnout special elections, and could power an unexpectedly robust midterms performance, including holding on to the 50-50 Senate.
Dobbs was, in effect, a massive policy win delivered by the out-of-power party. If the decisive voters in a midterm election want to “balance” out policy advances made in the past two years, Republicans now may be facing a situation where they’ve had a massive, backlash-inducing policy victory while in the congressional minority. That the most striking and overwhelming electoral victory for abortion rights since Dobbs was a literal defense of Kansas’ relatively restrictive status quo on legalized abortion only adds credence to this theory — large shifts away from what prevailed before Dobbs mean electoral risk for anti-abortion politicians.
“A drop in inflation and energy prices in particular lowers the salience of the issue. This drop creates space for the election to be about abortion and, in particular, highlighting how the Republican Party wants to change the status quo,” Ethan Winter, lead analyst at the left-leaning organization Data for Progress, told Grid.
The Dobbs decision — which was passed by the court’s conservatives — also disrupts one typical theory for why the party in power does poorly in midterms, that the public wants to “balance” policy advances made by the party in power.
But all this hardly means that the Democrats will hold on to Congress. For one, while special elections certainly say something about how the political environment has evolved in the past two months, Republicans can take back the House even if the national House vote is split evenly, thanks to redistricting and retirements. It’s also not clear that the electorate that shows up for special elections is the same that shows up to the general election in November.
“Special elections are low-turnout events, so we should be cautious over interpreting these results,” Winter said. “As turnout rises, it’s likely that each marginal voter added will care more about inflation than abortion.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.