Opinion 5 factors that will drive the midterms

Mandela Barnes leaves after casting his vote on Election Day in Milwaukee on Aug. 9. Barnes won the Democratic nomination to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. (Ebony Cox/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

There are still some important primaries left on the calendar. Among other things, we’ll learn whether Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) will stay in Congress, which Democratic House members from New York will survive their post-redistricting free-for-all and which Democrats will face Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida.

But with less than three months remaining until the general election, the issues determining this most important midterm election are pretty much set. Let’s break them down:

1

The president

Feelings about the person in the White House always dominate midterm elections, though the president’s party almost always loses seats no matter how they’re doing. On one hand, opinions of President Biden have been pretty poor for some time; he’s been hovering around 40 percent approval, and sometimes less.

On the other hand, the president is on a remarkable winning streak in Congress, having signed or is preparing to sign legislation on guns, expanding NATO, promoting high-tech manufacturing, climate and taxes, and veterans benefits. Even if people haven’t directly felt the results yet, if nothing else, this sudden burst of legislating is likely to mitigate the feeling among progressive Democrats that Biden is a disappointment and that it isn’t worth going to the polls to support him and his party.

Though the venomous loathing Republicans have for Biden doesn’t seem to have changed, at the moment there’s a disconnect between his ratings and people’s voting intentions. As many voters say they’ll choose a Democrat for House as will pick a Republican, while Republicans had been ahead on that question for months.

All of which is to say, we don’t really know how feelings about Biden will affect the results, and it’s possible this year could be an outlier in that the president’s party will do relatively well even as he remains unpopular.

2

The economy

We just learned that inflation for the month of July compared to the previous month was essentially zero, which means we might have reached the peak of this round of inflation. Gas prices have already started coming down; the national average has now fallen below $4 a gallon for the first time since March.

That doesn’t mean prices aren’t still high, but when it comes to the economy, it’s often not whether things are good or bad in some objective sense that matters most to elections, but rather whether they seem to be getting better or getting worse. The more inflation is moving in the right direction, the less voters may feel an urgent need to punish officeholders for it.

3

Abortion

No one should have been surprised that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but many were shocked that voters in conservative Kansas turned away a ballot initiative that would have allowed legislators to eliminate abortion rights. A measure to protect those rights will probably be on the ballot in the key state of Michigan, and Democratic candidates around the country are stressing the issue in their advertising.

4

Republican extremism

In state after state, Republicans have nominated election saboteurs, conspiracy theorists and shameless Trump lickspittles to key offices. In some states, they’ve nominated what is essentially an all-fanatic ticket. In Arizona, for instance, gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake has based her campaign on the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, while secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem is literally a member of the far-right Oath Keepers.

Democrats are certainly trying to make extremism a voting issue, but because we’ve never had an election with this many real extremists on the ballot, it’s hard to know how much of a difference it will make. But one of the ways campaigns have changed in recent years is that offices up and down the ballot have been nationalized: People are more aware than ever that when you vote for a member of Congress, you’re voting for their party even more than you’re voting for that individual.

5

Donald Trump

It’s common to hear that when the former president becomes an issue, he “distracts” from the news Democrats would rather focus on, such as the legislation they’ve passed. But there’s little reason to think Trump being in the news does any favors for Republicans. When do we hear about him these days? Because he’s being investigated, or because he said something horrifying, or because he continues to obsess over his petty grievances. There are no news stories about Trump doing something good.

And there’s no question that Trump is the greatest turnout motivator Democrats have ever had. As long as he seems like an active threat, the more likely Democratic voters will go to the polls.

The big picture here is that there is one issue that likely favors Republicans (inflation), while pretty much everything else favors Democrats. Barring some new crisis emerging in the next couple of months, this is what voters will have on their minds when they cast their ballots. And unlike in most midterm elections, we genuinely have no idea what will happen.

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