Can Democrats Avoid Another Midterm Debacle?

We’re a little more than a year away from the first round of primary elections in the runup to the 2022 midterms. It’s far too early to have any idea what the outcome will be. But it’s not too early to start paying attention. (Sort of.)  

Party actors are certainly paying attention. They’re starting to make decisions that will, to some extent, frame those elections. What we have here is an expectations game: Democrats and Republicans will make decisions based partly on their best guesses about partisan tides, which in turn will help to create the very swings in the electorate that they’re trying to react to. 

At least, that’s how things used to work. It’s not clear how accurate that description will be for the coming cycle. What’s changed is that individual candidates and their campaigns — and therefore, the once-critical advantage that incumbents enjoyed, all else equal — are all far less important in congressional and state elections than they once were. So an early round of Republican Senate retirements in swing-state Pennsylvania and moderately Republican Ohio and North Carolina is far less of a big deal than it once would’ve been. As for other resources? It’s become so easy to raise money these days that it’s rare for any candidate in a competitive House or Senate race to be significantly underfunded. 

I stubbornly suspect that candidate quality may still matter, so I’ll be watching recruiting, including the question of retirements, as carefully as ever. But a bunch of House retirements in 2020, for example, didn’t seem to hurt Republicans. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that what matters these days, more than anything, is the overall party swing. And that is closely tied to how the president is doing. When the president is perceived to be doing a good job, as Bill Clinton was in 1998 and George W. Bush was in 2002, then his party can do well in midterms. When the president is unpopular — Clinton in 1994, Bush in 2006, Barack Obama in 2010 and 2014, and Donald Trump in 2018 — the results can be brutal for his party. 

What we’re seeing right now are the effects of 1994 and 2010. Republicans are repeating their approach from those years: Oppose whatever the Democratic president proposes. It appears at this point that President Joe Biden will fail to get any Republican votes on his first major bill, and opposition to his cabinet picks is growing. Biden and the Democrats, for their part, are determined to have a different outcome than what happened in those years, drawing the lesson that the risks of underreaction are worse than the risks of overreaction. 

Here’s the thing: In the old days, what happens over the next 10 months or so would be critical. It goes back to those expectations. A classic study by Gary Jacobson found that the Democratic landslide in 1974 wasn’t caused by voters trying to punish Republicans for Watergate. Instead, the outcome was locked in months before the election when Democratic resources (including strong candidates) jumped into the fray, and Republican party actors, including politicians, opted out. Voters reacted to the strong Democratic candidates running strong campaigns and to the weak Republican candidates running weak campaigns. 

To the extent that elections are nationalized now, all that changes. Voters still have short memories; what they think about Biden and how he’s handling things this year probably won’t matter much next year. Perhaps that means that Biden has more leeway for a slow start than, say, Clinton or Reagan did. But there’s still nothing certain about it. So the Democrats are probably correct to tackle the pandemic and boost the economy as quickly as possible if they want to avoid yet another midterm debacle. 

1. Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction on a (temporary) world without lobbyists.

2. Jeannie Sowers and Erika Weinthal at the Monkey Cage on the effects of war in Yemen.

4. Adam Serwer on a political party with no interest in governing — and the consequences here in Texas (we didn’t lose water, but did lose power for 41 hours). 

7. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O’Brien on Trump’s tax returns.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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