The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In a normal year, the GOP should sweep. But 2022 isn’t normal.

A voter casts a ballot at a polling place during the midterm primary election on July 19 in Baltimore. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

When it comes to predicting midterm elections, it’s difficult to distinguish between insightful nonconformity and wishful thinking.

The conventional wisdom, well-rooted in history and data, suggests the Democrats should be toast this fall. But beware, say the dissenters, because 2022 is not a normal year, and it will not play out in a normal way.

The dissenters may be onto something, even if the case for a Republican sweep is strong.

It starts with President Biden’s sour approval rating, running in the mid-30s or low 40s at best. An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist Poll released on July 20 had particularly bad news for Biden: While 43 percent strongly disapproved of him, only 11 percent strongly approved of him.

The public view of the economy is gloomy — and voters expect even worse. In a comprehensive study this month, Pew Research Center found that just 13 percent of Americans rated the economy as excellent or good — and since you’re probably wondering, only 1 percent actually picked “excellent.” Opinion is also moving quickly in a negative direction. As recently as January, 28 percent rated the economy positively.

Pew also found 47 percent saying the economy would be worse a year from now. Back in March 2021, only 31 percent thought the economy would deteriorate.

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If the polling seems lethal for Democrats, so does history. In midterms, voters often toss out vulnerable members of the incumbent party who swept in on earlier tides. Turnout for the party in power also typically drops off. Opposition voters tend to be more eager to cast ballots by way of sending a message of protest.

Dissenters from the Midnight for Democrats view don’t disagree with most of this, but their case is rooted in a different and plausible claim: After the wild presidency of Donald Trump and the radicalization of the Republican Party, there’s reason to believe 2022 does not fit neatly into the old paradigms.

Trump has not gone away. The Jan. 6 committee has brought his transgressions back to the center of discussion. One of his most important legacies is a very right-wing Supreme Court that has begun a radical demolition of long-standing conceptions of the law on abortion, guns, environmental regulation and voting rights — with more to come.

Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington are a reminder of another factor working in the Democrats’ favor, particularly in key Senate races: GOP voters have picked a lot of very right-wing and thus highly vulnerable nominees.

The result: If the public isn’t wild about Democrats, they like Republicans even less. That Pew survey found that 57 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, but 61 percent had an unfavorable view of Republicans.

This means that many Democrats who take a critical view of Biden — often because they don’t think he’s fighting Republicans hard enough — are still telling pollsters they’re determined to vote Democratic in the midterm elections, as my Post colleague Perry Bacon Jr. pointed out this month. And the prospect of congressional breakthroughs for Biden’s long-stalled program could bump up the president’s numbers enough to make an electoral difference.

When it comes to issues, the Pew study suggests the decisive question for 2022 is whether Democrats can push the campaign dialogue away from economic performance and toward concerns on which Republicans are at a decided disadvantage.

Yes, on economic policy, voters say they agree more with Republicans than Democrats by 40 percent to 33 percent. Still, this seven-point margin is surprisingly small, given the broader economic mood. Republicans have a five-point advantage on crime, and immigration is a wash, with the GOP holding a one-point lead.

The list of problems on which Democrats have the advantage, according to Pew, is much longer.

Voters prefer Democrats over the GOP by 20 points on both climate policy and issues affecting LGBTQ people; by 14 points on abortion and covid policy; by 13 points on health care and policies affecting race; and by four points on gun policy.

There is also this: While 37 percent of Americans have a very unfavorable view of Biden, 46 percent have a very unfavorable view of Trump. The more Trump is at the center of the conversation, the worse it is for Republicans — and there has been a lot of Trump news lately.

When it comes to the substance of the matter, you can count me as believing that until Republicans break openly and decisively with Trump, putting them in power is profoundly dangerous. But the numbers — especially when it comes to holding their slim House majority — are still daunting for Democrats.

The bottom line: An unhappy country that might otherwise punish the incumbent party really doesn’t like the alternative. That’s why the campaign ahead will matter.