The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Must Democrats get crushed in 2022?


If the 2022 elections were held anytime soon, Democrats would face what President George W. Bush called “a thumpin’ ” after his party suffered a midterm rout 16 years ago. What can change between now and November?

Democratic hope-mongers imagine better times soon. They see a world in which the coronavirus pandemic threat recedes, high levels of economic growth continue — for which President Biden, finally, gets some credit — and inflation comes down.

And, yes, they assume Democrats in Congress will reach some kind of deal on the president’s Build Back Better program while the Senate pushes aside the filibuster to enact two voting rights bills that would allow the elections to be held with some degree of fairness.

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Notice that even in this comeback story, Democrats have to do some things to help themselves. And this gets to why their poll numbers are low.

Democrats have been ineffective in selling their accomplishments, which include the soaring economy, their economic rescue plan and a historic infrastructure bill, partly because their achievements have been overshadowed by the protracted struggle over Build Back Better. The wrangling has made the whole party, including Biden, look ineffectual — and exhaustion with what seems like a forever pandemic hasn’t helped.

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Let’s stipulate: A media ecosystem divided between a mainstream that takes pride in nonpartisan toughness on incumbents and a powerful right-wing communications network makes life harder for Democrats. But there is little chance of changing the media narrative unless Democrats themselves shift the broader conversation.

The upshot: Biden’s standing has eroded from a 56 percent Gallup approval rating in mid-June to 43 percent in December. This is problem enough, but what should worry Democrats more is that Biden’s opponents are filled with passionate intensity while his supporters are, well, meh.

The Morning Consult/Politico survey conducted between Dec. 18 and Dec. 20, for example, found 43 percent of registered voters approving of Biden’s performance and 53 percent disapproving. But only 21 percent of those surveyed strongly approved of what Biden is doing, while 39 percent strongly disapproved.

The disenchantment of their core supporters is the biggest problem Democrats have to deal with. Among 18- to 29-year-olds — who gave Biden a 24-point advantage over Donald Trump in 2020 — only 22 percent strongly approved of his performance in the Morning Consult survey. And while 47 percent of Democrats strongly approved of Biden’s performance, 74 percent of Republicans strongly disapproved.

A comparable enthusiasm gap during Trump’s presidency led to Republican disaster in 2018. Democrats face this danger now.

Compounding the Democrats’ difficulties are signs that a potentially decisive bloc of middle-of-the-road voters who backed Biden over Trump is drifting away. A careful analysis of the 2021 Virginia governor’s race found that Republican Glenn Youngkin prevailed in a state Biden carried by 10 points thanks to a turnout differential in the GOP’s favor — and because 9 percent of Biden voters who did cast ballots supported Youngkin.

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The study, conducted by pollster Geoff Garin for the Democratic Governors Association, concluded that these voters were “disproportionately male, politically independent, middle of the road ideologically, and more likely than average to be college educated.” Another key conclusion: “Education stands out as the number one issue motivating Biden/Youngkin voters to switch.”

Democrats clearly have to shore up their standing as stewards of the public schools. The larger lesson is that Republicans can win if they cozy up to Trump enough to turn out his supporters but not so much as to alienate moderates. Will Democrats allow Republicans to execute the Youngkin Straddle unchallenged in 2022?

Attacking Trump is not enough. Biden and his party need to make democracy itself a central issue, starting now.

This means, first, quick final passage of the democracy bills pending in the Senate. It also requires invoking the evidence from the House select committee’s Jan. 6 investigation to make clear that the threat to democracy comes not just from Trump but also from a Republican Party complicit in undermining democratic institutions, both overtly and through its silence.

Biden can strengthen his own standing by championing democracy far more forcefully. This requires vigorous advocacy for the democracy bills, legal and executive action against the GOP assault on free elections, and proving democratic government’s day-to-day effectiveness.

His allies in Congress should stop shilly-shallying and pass key elements of Build Back Better. With voting rights and achievements on behalf of the climate, heath care and the well-being of kids, Democrats might begin to break the fever of disillusionment.

Democrats will face big losses unless they simultaneously win back middle-ground voters and mobilize their disheartened loyalists. Governing with urgency is a good place to start, but overcoming the midterm blues will require more. They must make the election about something that matters. If democracy isn’t worth fighting for, what is?