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Will the 2022 Election Be a Teachable Moment for the Democrats?
It’s Certainly Looking Like It Should Be
How bad will the 2022 election be for the Democrats? In all likelihood, quite bad. Biden’s approval rating is bad, his rating is worse on the most important issue, the economy, and it is truly terrible on high profile, contentious issues like crime and immigration. Democrats are behind on the generic Congressional ballot, despite the tendency of this measure to overestimate Democratic strength. The results of special and off-cycle elections indicate a very pro-GOP electoral environment. And midterm elections are typically bad for the incumbent party anyway.
So there are not a lot of good signs here. In fact, hardly any. The prospect of a very serious wipeout does seem plausible. A case along these lines for the Senate was made by Simon Bazelon on Matt Yglesias’ substack newsletter. His approach was very simple. Estimate what the Democratic disadvantage on the Congressional ballot is likely to be at the election (-4.5) and compare that to Biden’s advantage in 2020 (+4.5). That suggests a 9 point pro-GOP shift in the national electoral environment which, applied across states would imply no Senate pickups for the Democrats from the Republicans and the loss of their on-cycle Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire Senate seats (and control of the Senate) to the GOP. The outlook for 2024 is even worse, implying that even good Democratic performance in the Presidential contest could still leave the Democrats with only about 42 Senate seats.
As for the House, variants of the same approach by Amy Walter and Henry Olsen suggest Democratic losses could reach 25-40 or so seats. That of course is much, much more than the Republicans need to flip control of the House.
What passes for optimism here can be gleaned from Alan Abramowitz’ 2022 election forecasting model, presented on Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Abramowitz uses a very simple model, predicting House and Senate seat swings from generic Congressional polling and seat exposure in each body for the incumbent party. Walking in Bazelon’s estimate for the future Congressional ballot margin, Abramowitz’ model predicts a loss of around 23 House seats and little, and perhaps no change, in the Senate.
What can the Democrats do to avoid their apparent upper bound of losses and wind up closer to Abramowitz’ prediction? One approach it to emphasize the “roaring” economy with strong growth and historically low joblessness. The problem here is that inflation has eaten up workers’ wage gains from the hot economy so that real wages have actually gone down in the last year by 2.7 percent. And people just generally hate inflation and encounter it constantly in their daily lives. That and continued supply chain difficulties account for voters’ sour outlook on the economy. It is unlikely that Democrats can talk people out of these views by emphasizing something they already know (the job market is good!)
Another approach is to emphasize that “Democrats get things done” and point to their legislative successes such as the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But the Democrats have stepped on their own story here by all the other things they’ve tried to do…and failed.
Any reasonably clear-eyed look at the 2020 election strongly indicated that Biden was elected to get the country back to normal by containing the covid pandemic and fixing the economy. But the need to barrel ahead with “transformational change” was pushed consistently by many in the Democratic party—pushed in fact to the point of collapse in 2021.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill was held up for months as the House’s Progressive Caucus refused to vote for it unless a truly transformational Build Back Better bill could be elaborated and somehow guaranteed passage. Eventually, the infrastructure bill was passed, though the long delay vitiated its political effects, and the Build Back Better bill collapsed exposing the Democratic party’s refusal to understand the limitations of a narrowly divided Congress.
And one might add, exposing the party’s lack of understanding of what the American people most wanted, which was very simply the return of normality not transformation. While the Democratic Congress wasted months in arcane negotiations about bill structure, what programs it would and would not cover and how many trillions of dollars it all would cost, ordinary voters were trying to cope with the Delta wave and the emergence of supply and inflation problems in the economy. As they became increasingly unhappy with the Biden administration and increasingly unsure just when things would finally get back to normal, the endless, confusing negotiations went on.
That’s a hard genie to put back in the bottle and replace with an image of effective, focused governance. And then there are other problems like crime, immigration and the schools where things still seem far from normal and where Democrats are associated with ineffective and unpopular approaches. No wonder Democratic candidates all over the country are tacking toward funding the police, establishing law and order and ensuring public safety. And no wonder Democratic candidates in swing states are practically begging the Biden administration not to rescind Title 42, since that move would almost certainly produce a big immigration surge at the Mexican border on top of already record numbers. As Morning Consult recently noted: “Ending Title 42 is Biden’s most unpopular move yet”.
The Democrats could do worse than a return to the basics: we are all about getting the country back to normal. We are leaving covid behind by fully re-opening schools and businesses. We are doing everything we can to tame inflation including mobilizing all our energy resources, from oil and gas to renewables. And we are going to get crime and the border under control with tough but fair policies.
That would be a decent damage minimization approach. But realistically it will be difficult to get the party to speak with one voice on these issues and it is probably a bit late in the cycle for a thorough reset. Democrats may be better off accepting they will take their lumps in 2022 but use the election as a teachable moment.
That teachable moment should be, above all, about re-acquainting the party with the actually-existing demographics and politics of the country they live in. Given patterns of educational and geographical polarization, they are now at a crippling disadvantage in what remains an overwhelmingly working class and non-urban country. There are simply too many districts and states in the country where that polarization redounds to their disadvantage and makes them uncompetitive. That is not a problem that can be solved by “mobilizing the base”. It calls instead for expanding your coalition by persuading more working class and non-urban voters you share their values and priorities.
It is either do that or brace yourself for a really bad 2024. And you know what that means.