Betting Against a Blue Wave

Democrats are likely to face insurmountable partisan, demographic, and policy challenges during the final weeks of midterm election campaigning.

Democrats are channeling Mark Twain: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Twain informed America from his London sickbed in 1897. Fast forward 125 years, and we find many Democrats who believe their party’s electoral obituary was prematurely written.

Until midsummer, almost all pollsters reported a “red wave” would wash away the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Our own Democracy Institute/Daily Express poll tracker, which in April began monthly surveys of 1,500 likely voters, consistently found an electoral environment highly favorable to Republicans. These findings led us to conclude a red tsunami could possibly drown the Democrats—even to the point that the party would still be lost at sea several elections hence.

Following a spring drenched with unattractive poll numbers (for Democrats), mid-to-late summer changed everything. America’s reliably unreliable mainstream academic and media polls started finding Democrats in newly competitive positions in contested House races and especially in open Senate seats. Many experts downgraded their forecasts from a red wave to a modest red ripple, even a mere red trickle. On Aug. 19, the New Yorker asked, “Is There a Serious Case for a Not-Awful Election for Democrats This Fall?” By Aug. 20, The Hill headlined an article, “Five Reasons Democrats’ Midterm Chances Are Rising,” followed by “Red Wave Hits Breaker,” on Aug. 28. An Aug. 30 analysis from NBC News found that “Republicans’ hopes for a ‘red wave’ are receding ahead of the 2022 elections.”

Late August polls, such as The Economist/YouGov America survey, which found an 8-percentage-point Democrat lead, and Politico/Morning Consult, with a 5-percentage-point Democrat lead, stimulated dreams of a possible blue wave crashing ashore in November.

The Democracy Institute’s summer polling saw some wavering, undecided Democratic voters return to the partisan fold, thereby narrowing the gap between the parties. These returning Democrats, however, largely reside in overwhelmingly safe Democratic districts and states. Their net effect on competitive House and Senate races therefore will be minimal.

The Democracy Institute’s Labor Day poll, which coincided with the unofficial start of the general election campaign, found a 5-point Republican edge on the national generic congressional ballot. The lead may not appear arithmetically overwhelming; however, the Republican vote, both presidentially and congressionally, is a comparatively efficient vote. As such, should the national vote tally produce a 5-point Republican advantage, the party will enjoy a very successful election.

Four years ago, the Democrats won the national vote by 8 points, gaining 41 House seats. In 2014, a 6-point Republican popular victory produced a 13-seat gain in the House. In 2010, a 7-point Republican win led to a gain of 63 House seats. Our current projection is a 44-seat gain in the House of Representatives for the Republicans.

Democrats are likely to face insurmountable partisan, demographic, and policy challenges during the final weeks of midterm election campaigning. Three partisan developments especially lengthen the Democrats’ odds.

First, a higher percentage of registered Republicans than registered Democrats will vote for their own party. While only one in 20 Republicans will be voting Democrat, one in 12 Democrats will vote Republican. Given a national electorate almost equally divided in partisan terms, the Republicans’ small advantage in party loyalty is valuable.

Second, registered independents continue to favor the Republicans by a 16-point margin, which makes it unlikely for the Democrats to stay in power in the Legislature. While it is possible to win the independent vote narrowly and still lose a national election, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accomplished in 2012, it is close to impossible to maintain congressional and senatorial majorities if independent voters favor your opponent by double digits.

Third, demographically, Democrats are actually in very bad shape. Republicans are unsurprisingly the party of choice for a majority of male voters and white voters. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Republicans are now also polling as the party of choice for a plurality of female voters and a majority of Hispanic voters. This is key because the Democrats will win the midterms only if they better the Republicans among female and Hispanic voters, 80 percent of whom are working class. Hispanics’ pro-Republican swing, particularly among females and young males, is this election cycle’s most significant development.

Counterintuitively, females are harder for Democrats to persuade this year. Rising crime is a major factor, as evidenced by female gun ownership spiking upwards for the third consecutive year. Gun ownership is the single best predictor of voting for a Republican congressional candidate.

Democratic hopes also rest, as always, upon securing 90-plus percent of black votes with heavy black turnout. Today, one in every four black voters say they will vote Republican. Anything approaching such an outcome would end Democrats’ chance of retaining Congress.

In the Senate, the Democracy Institute’s generic poll shows Republicans 3 percentage points ahead of the Democrats. The partisan and demographic breakdowns there are very comparable to those found across the House races.

Democratic candidates’ priorities match the priorities of their young progressive base and their affluent white suburban voters but largely miss the mark with centrist Republicans and independents.

Party affiliation is shifting in a Republican direction. Gallup polls regularly ask, “Do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent?” In the July Gallup poll, Republicans led Democrats 45 percent to 43 percent. About a year earlier, in June 2021, Democrats enjoyed a 9-point lead on this perennial question.

Much of the shift captured in the Gallup poll reflects an underreported ideological swing. A new Morning Consult study finds Americans are less liberal than they were before the 2018 midterms. Today, 37 percent of Americans identify as conservative, 28 percent as moderate, and 27 percent as liberal. Interestingly, this swing was largely driven by Hispanics and blacks.

Our latest projection is for a net swing of three Senate seats to the Republicans, leaving them with a 53-to-47 majority advantage. We currently project Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, as well as surgeon and television personality Mehmet Oz, both Republicans, to win the open Republican seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively. Republicans, including former professional football running back Herschel Walker, venture capitalist Blake Masters, and the lawyer and scion of a prominent American political family, Adam Laxalt, should triumph in the currently Democratic-held seats in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada, respectively. Republicans may also pick up the New Hampshire seat held by Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan.

Anyone hoping that still-undecided voters will ultimately swing the election the Democrats’ way will be disappointed. On the one hand, there are still enough undecided voters (1-in-14 voters are undecided in Democracy Institute’s House poll; 1-in-9 voters are undecided in our Senate survey) to make the difference. However, when undecided voters decide, they will not favor Democratic candidates. That is because undecideds, especially in swing states with competitive House and Senate contests, are overwhelmingly disapproving of Joe Biden’s performance as president. Furthermore, undecided voters skew toward the working class economically and are more likely to be high school educated. This tends to make them more receptive to the current populist conservative messages of Republicans rather than to the Democrats’ progressive economics and woke-driven cultural themes. The undecided voter poll also contains disproportionately more black males and female Hispanics, groups that are now challenging for Democrats, as noted previously.

The policy environment remains almost uniformly helpful to Republican messaging. The issues Republican candidates are prioritizing generally match the priorities of both Republican and independent voters. Democratic candidates’ priorities match the priorities of their young progressive base and their affluent white suburban voters but largely miss the mark with centrist Republicans and independents.

Voters remain fixated upon pocketbook concerns. Inflation—especially rent costs and grocery and gas prices—tops their list, followed by wages and jobs. Next comes crime, then illegal immigration, the baby formula crisis, and education. Abortion is less important to voters, but it does make the list of top priorities, as do the crisis in Ukraine and COVID-19.

It is only on abortion and COVID-19 that Democrats are holding their own with voters. Voters still favor the Democrats on COVID-19, although that now-slim advantage has been falling all year, while Republicans hold a small lead on the abortion issue.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict is another issue of some importance to voters. Their preference for the Republicans on this topic grew slowly but steadily over the summer months.

Republicans enjoy large leads on the issues related to financial and personal security, as well as those directly affecting their children, such as baby formula and education. These are the issues of paramount importance to voters, so the Republican advantage in these areas is ideal heading into an election. The Democrats remain unable to shift voters’ priorities away from these issues and on to other, potentially more favorable territory.

A number of polling and non-polling metrics consistently foretell election outcomes. The metrics with the best predictive records include presidential approval; historical midterm data; Census Bureau data; redistricting; officeholder retirements; partisan registration; primary turnout; voter enthusiasm; off-year gubernatorial elections; and economic fundamentals, such as growth, wages, the cost of living, and stock-market performance.

Presidential approval ratings below 50 percent portend poor outcomes for the incumbent party’s candidates, especially in the midterm of a president’s first term. Biden’s approval rating remains under 40 percent and is unlikely to improve markedly before Election Day.

Biden’s electoral toxicity is exemplified by the vast number of Democratic candidates suffering from Biden Avoidance Syndrome (BAS). BAS strikes when Democrats running in competitive races decline the opportunity to campaign alongside the president. If Biden were popular, candidates would embrace him wholeheartedly.

Biden’s unpopularity is exacerbated by the historical reality that a president’s first midterm after his election is usually challenging for his party. There are exceptions, most recently President George W. Bush’s Republican Party doing well in the 2002 midterm. In the modern era, more commonplace is the Democrats’ net loss of 63 seats in 2010, during President Obama’s first term, and the Republicans’ setback of 41 seats in 2018, during the halfway point of President Trump’s term.

After Republicans netted 14 House seats in the 2020 election, the margin between majority and minority party status in the current House is small: the Republicans need to gain only five seats to become the majority party.

With Americans physically leaving Democratic Party-run blue states for Republican-run red states, the recent reapportionment of congressional districts based upon new Census Bureau data provided reliably red states with at least three new reliably Republican districts. This positioned Republicans 60 percent of the way toward a House majority even before midterm campaigning began in earnest.

A large number of incumbents, two-thirds of them Democrats, are retiring from Congress this year. When more than 30 congressmen, including several committee chairmen, step down, it signals either that they foresee a Republican majority and have no desire to become part of the gavel-less minority, or that they actually fear losing their own seats. With so many open House races, the number of competitive contests has leapt upwards as new Democratic candidates are drafted in to defend once-impregnable, now newly vulnerable seats.

a ballot box in front of an American flag
(Pedro Gonazalez / via Canva)

Voter registration data has long been a reliable indicator of electoral success. The 31 states reporting this data illuminate two key variables: voter enthusiasm for a given party and the effectiveness of a party’s ground campaign to identify supporters and subsequently mobilize them to vote.

Democrats maintain an 11.3 million national registration advantage, which stems from heavily populated, solidly blue states, including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. While overall partisan totals merit consideration, the trend lines show momentum on the right and provide fodder for Republican optimism. Most impressively, since the 2018 midterms Florida has switched from a plurality of registered Democrats to a plurality of registered Republicans, a 488,000 voter swing. Both Kentucky and West Virginia have experienced the same flip from Democrat to Republican. Meanwhile, in 2022, Iowa moved from a plurality of registered independents—with a Republican advantage over Democrats—to a plurality of registered Republicans. And both North Carolina and Oregon have moved from a plurality of registered Democrats in 2018 to a plurality of registered independents in 2022.

Over recent elections, primary turnout has been among the more accurate predictors of general election results. This year’s turnout data reveals an enormous partisan swing since the 2018 midterms. Voter turnout in this year’s Republican primaries often dwarfed the turnout in Democratic primaries, including in swing states such as Wisconsin.

In the 42 states reporting primary data by mid-August, overall Republican primary turnout was up 19 percent from 2018; Democratic turnout fell 7 percent. This year, Republicans hold a 6-percentage-point national lead over Democrats in primary turnout; four years ago, the Democrats held a 7-point lead.

Measuring voter enthusiasm is another excellent gauge of probable general election turnout. Republicans presently enjoy a 15-point “enthusiasm gap” over Democrats. More than two-thirds of Republicans are extremely or very enthusiastic about their choice of congressional candidate. Only a little more than half of Democrats feel the same way, although the enthusiasm gap is slightly smaller since the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling in late June, which has motivated some Democrats.

Other encouraging signals for Republicans were the results of the 2021 gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. These off-year contests have a solid history of foreshadowing the partisan swing one year later in the midterms. Prime examples of this were Republican gubernatorial victories in 1993 and again in 2009, heralding Republican midterm victories in 1994 and 2010.

Last November in light-blue Virginia, underdog Republican Glenn Youngkin upset former Governor Terry McAuliffe by two points, which was Youngkin’s exact margin in our election-eve Democracy Institute poll. In deep-blue New Jersey, unheralded Jack Ciattarelli upset conventional wisdom when he ran a close race against Governor Phil Murphy, losing by only three points. Tellingly, both of these gubernatorial results revealed 20-point shifts to Republicans since the 2020 election.

Both economic and financial metrics are unhelpful to Democrats. The national economy is cratering under the weight of $30.8 trillion in national debt, a federal debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio of 124 percent, a $6 trillion federal budget, a $1.5 billion annual budget deficit, tax increases, and supply-chain problems precipitated by pandemic lockdowns.

A recession is underway, with the economy having shrunk for two consecutive quarters. The manufacturing sector is experiencing the steepest decline since the 2008-9 financial crisis. The official, deeply massaged inflation rate is still the highest it has been in 40 years; the real rate is probably twice the official figure.

House prices are now falling, and as of August, 40 percent of small-business owners reported not being able to pay their rent in full and on time, according to Alignable’s rent report. The Census Bureau reports that 3.8 million renters will likely be evicted during September and October.

A plurality of voters polled by the Democracy Institute now say Democrats represent the wealthy elite, whereas a majority say Republicans represent ordinary people.

Despite population growth, the labor force remains smaller than its pre-pandemic level. Since March, America has lost 383,000 higher-paying full-time jobs, while gaining 335,000 lower-paying part-time jobs. Twenty million Americans cannot pay their electric bills. Average credit-card debt has soared 13 percent, the largest increase since 1999. With real wages falling, workers are increasingly holding two or more jobs to pay for basic necessities. The number of multiple jobholders whose primary and secondary jobs are both full time is at a record high.

In the months before an election, a rising stock market generally bodes well for the party and the president in power. Conversely, few incumbents and their parties survive a downward trending market. So far, this year has been the worst for the markets in 50 years. At the time of writing, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down 13 percent on the year; the S&P 500 is down 17 percent, and the Nasdaq Composite is down 25 percent. Consequently, Biden’s handling of the economy has a lowly 28-percent approval rating.

Deteriorating economic conditions dovetail with a government-orchestrated, race-centric culture war aimed squarely at conservative America’s religiosity and traditional values. A vast majority of Americans across multiple polls are now convinced their country is on the wrong track. Add sky-high murder rates, declining schools, and 4.2 million new illegal immigrants to that witches’ brew, and it is unsurprising to find that 85 percent of Americans polled by the Associated Press in June think their country is headed in the wrong direction.

Foreign policy has also failed to provide the Democrats with political relief. Little over a year ago, Biden’s Afghanistan debacle humiliated America on the global stage. This year, the Biden administration’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not served to rally Americans around the commander-in-chief in a sustained fashion. Our polling tracks the steady reduction of popular interest in and support for the war. Rather than Russia’s failings, Americans are focused upon Biden’s poor record of prognostication regarding the nature and duration of the war, especially Russia’s ability to withstand economic sanctions, as well as the $60 billion cost to American taxpayers of funding Ukraine’s military effort, while the sanctions themselves exacerbate America’s cost-of-living crisis. Hence, only 30 percent of voters approve of Biden’s handling of foreign policy, and just one in three approve of the president’s handling of the Ukraine crisis.

Recent weeks have seen the Democrats throw a whole new kitchen sink of policies at Democratic voters, as well as attacks aimed at Republican voters. To date, none of these efforts have worked well; some of them may even be counterproductive.

The abortion issue and a strong counter-reaction to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling is not the silver bullet Democratic strategists mistook it to be. While the issue enthuses some Democratic voters, these strongly pro-choice, highly motivated Democrats always vote anyway. And they live predominantly in the states of California, Illinois, and New York, where their votes merely pad healthy Democratic margins. This explains why Democratic turnout has not increased in net terms since the Supreme Court decision.

Overall, abortion is instead a small net plus for Republicans, because single-issue abortion voters are overwhelmingly pro-life. They are mostly episodic voters—living disproportionately in swing states—who, when they believe abortion to be on the ballot, add crucial votes to Republican totals in competitive races.

The Democrats took a page out of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four when they named their new $740 billion piece of inflationary legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). According to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, 90 percent of the revenue from the IRA will come from people making under $200,000 annually. Along with unwelcome tax increases, the IRA spends $316 billion on grants, subsidies, and giveaways to the green-energy sector dominated by major Democratic party donors.

Also funded are 87,000 additional IRS agents whose tax audits will target mostly low-to-middle income earners. In 2021, 64 percent of those audited earned less than $50,000. The IRS audited 197 low-income families for every high-wealth family, according to the General Accounting Office. Wealthier and well-connected individuals will continue mostly to avoid examination. By huge margins, voters oppose both the IRA and the IRS staff increase.

Cancelling student-loan debt is the latest White House ploy to convince Zoomer and Millennial voters that sticking with the president’s party literally pays off for them. Forty-three million student borrowers owe a collective $1.75 trillion. No doubt, some voters about to see $10,000 of debt erased will reward the party exercising the eraser. The Democrats’ difficulty, however, is that this program will cost over $1 trillion, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model. CNBC estimates that the plan will cost the average taxpayer $2,000. Those funds will be provided by those who self-financed their college educations, those who paid off their student loans, and those who never went to college.

By 55 percent to 41 percent, voters oppose the student debt plan. A University of Chicago study found that student loan forgiveness would benefit the top income decile as much as the bottom three deciles combined. Working-class voters especially have a visceral reaction to such regressive “trickle up” economics, perfectly illustrated by this blatant attempt to bribe millions of voters, many of whom are highly paid professionals from affluent backgrounds.

In swing states, public response is deeply negative. The Hill reported, “Several Democratic candidates in tough Senate races are treading carefully when it comes to President Biden’s decision to cancel student loans for millions of borrowers, with some distancing themselves from the new White House plan.”

Working-class Americans dominate non-college-educated voters, and this socioeconomic cohort is a plurality of all voters. In November, these offended voters will exact a measure of revenge on the plan’s proponents. A plurality of voters polled by the Democracy Institute now say Democrats represent the wealthy elite, whereas a majority say Republicans represent ordinary people.

The most desperate and alarming of Biden’s midterms maneuvers started in late August, when he asserted that Trump’s supporters are “semi-fascist.” By a 27-point margin, voters disagree with Biden’s characterization.

On Sept. 1, outside of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, an angry Biden delivered a dark, ignorant, and offensive prime-time presidential address making the preposterous claim that Trump voters do not respect the Constitution and do not believe in the rule of law. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden said.

His rhetorical attacks came on the heels of the FBI’s seemingly baseless raid on Trump’s Florida home, which a majority of voters also opposed. The White House must have concluded that raiding the private residence of a former president (and a present opponent) was insufficient to the task of winning hearts and minds before Nov. 8. Every second voter also needed to be told that he or she is an anti-democracy extremist.

When considering the depth of this tactical blunder, one is reminded of the wisdom of the late Fox News founder Roger Ailes, once the media consultant to President George H. W. Bush. Ailes cautioned candidates never to call the voters stupid. To do so, he said, would insult two large and powerful groups: all the voters who are stupid, and all the voters who are not.

Like Twain, the Democrats were never dying. But, also like Twain, they were, and still are, quite ill. They, too, will recover, and given the cyclical nature of politics, will retake Congress at a later juncture. In the meantime, historical and real-time data tell us that the Democrats’ electoral malady will linger long after November’s election.

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