Suddenly, the 2022 midterms are looking much better for Democrats, and there’s a simple explanation: Donald Trump is back on the ballot, metaphorically speaking.
Democrats just gained a small (0.5 percentage points) advantage over Republicans in what’s known as the “generic ballot” — when voters are asked which party’s candidate they will support for Congress. Earlier this year, Democrats had trailed by as many as 2.7 points, according to the political website FiveThirtyEight. Michael Podhorzer, the former political director for the AFL-CIO, ran the numbers and found that, going back a quarter-century, the incumbent president’s party almost always found its position deteriorating at this point. (The lone exception was 2018, when Republicans did poorly all year.)
Also, polls show Democratic voter “enthusiasm” pulling even in recent weeks with Republican levels, erasing an earlier gap. And the data are supported by anecdotal evidence: high Democratic turnout in contested primaries, a lopsided rejection of an antiabortion measure in Kansas, and Democratic candidates’ dramatic outperformance of Joe Biden’s 2020 showing in recent special elections in Minnesota and Nebraska.
Let’s pause for the usual caveats here. This is just a snapshot in time, and things could change. Democrats are still likely to lose the House; their four-seat advantage is nearly impossible to defend. A GOP spending barrage is coming.
But, 84 days from the election, the big red wave looks to be more of a ripple. This is because voters are receiving repeated reminders of what made them so unhappy about the Trump era.
Republican lawmakers and candidates, and their Fox News echo chamber, have again wrapped themselves around the former president with their hysterical reaction to the court-ordered search of Mar-a-Lago. Their violent talk (followed by threats and actual violence), their attacks on the rule of law (“destroy the FBI”), their conspiracy theories (the FBI planted evidence?) and their reckless defense of the indefensible (possibly pilfering nuclear secrets) are all reruns of the Trump presidency. Republican officials did much the same when faced with the damning revelations of the Jan. 6 committee.
Extremist candidates — some with ties to QAnon, the Oath Keepers or the events of Jan. 6 — are dominating Republican primaries. Scores of election deniers have become GOP nominees for governor, secretaries of state and other positions. The few truth-tellers have been banished; with Tuesday’s likely defeat of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), eight of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump will be leaving Congress.
The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, enabled by three Trump appointees, has taken a fundamental right from Americans. The proliferation of extreme prohibitions since then — abortion bans without exception for rape, incest or the health of the mother — have been shocking in their cruelty.
On top of these unwelcome reminders of what MAGA means, easing inflation, falling gas prices and a string of legislative successes for President Biden’s agenda — all with unemployment at a 50-year low — have blunted the GOP argument that Biden and the Democratic Congress are ineffective.
Handicapper Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, noting the rising possibility that Democrats could defy historical patterns, asks: “Will this be an asterisk election?” But it’s also possible that exceptions to the historical pattern are now the rule.
Midterm elections have historically been low-turnout contests, determined by differences in partisan enthusiasm. Voters favoring the party that won the presidency tend to stay home, while voters from the opposing party are angry and motivated. (Very few voters swing from one party to the other.) For decades, turnout ranged from 37 percent to 42 percent.
But the Trump era blew up the old models. In the 2018 midterms, turnout soared to 50 percent. Turnout again shattered records in 2020. And Democrats tend to win high-turnout elections because most Americans reject Trumpism. There were 3 million more votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016, 9 million more for House Democrats in 2018 and 7 million more for Biden in 2020.
Now signs point to another high-turnout election. Republican voters were already fired up before the Mar-a-Lago search. Now, Democratic voters (many of whom were frustrated at the lack of accountability for Trump despite the revelations of the Jan. 6 committee) appear to be matching them in passion.
Back in early February, when Democrats were in the doldrums, Podhorzer, the former AFL-CIO political director, wrote: “When voters believe that the election is ‘about’ Trump, turnout soars — but more so among his opponents than among his supporters.”
That’s exactly what appears to be happening.