Betting markets overwhelmingly expect Republicans to retake the House next year, and that’s probably a very good bet.
It is not uncommon for the president’s party to get battered in the first midterm election after his inauguration. In fact, it’s expected. But President Biden and his Democratic Party face a slew of factors — seven, articulated below — that seem likely to amplify that effect.
Biden’s low approval rating. We can start with the historical data. Data from Gallup shows how presidential approval correlates to midterm success, or, more often, failure. Since the 1970s, the higher a president’s approval, the fewer seats his party loses. But when a president’s approval is near where Biden’s was in October, the results for his party are grim.
There have been exceptions: In 2018, the Democratic wave was smaller than the Republican gains in 2010, despite Donald Trump being less popular than Barack Obama. But when the majority is as narrow as the Democrats’ is currently — eight seats — history suggests that Biden would need an approval rating somewhere near 60 to maintain that edge.
That is not the case now and will almost certainly not be the case in a year.
The potential for lingering problems with the economy and the pandemic. Part of the reason that Biden’s approval rating is so low, of course, is that Americans are skeptical of his handling of both the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. Inflation has risen dramatically over the past year, including in ways that are often intangible to many consumers. But prices for things like gasoline have surged, with a very immediate effect on household budgets.
In four polls conducted by YouGov in June for the Economist, Biden averaged a 47 percent approval rating on his handling of jobs and the economy, including 23 percent of respondents who strongly approved. In the most recent YouGov-Economist poll, his overall approval on the economy had dropped to 39 percent, with 17 percent strongly approving. On the pandemic, the shift is similar. In June (when the pandemic was at its nadir for the year), an average of 54 percent of the country approved of how Biden was handling it. In the most recent poll, 44 percent did.
These numbers can change. Gas prices might fall, and inflation might slow. Coronavirus cases might rise more slowly than they did over the summer. But even if they do, there’s no guarantee that Biden, now unquestionably out of his honeymoon period with voters, will see any benefit. And if they don’t, of course, the situation is even more dire.
Sagging generic ballot numbers. One of the questions pollsters regularly ask voters is which party they would support in a hypothetical House contest in their district, the Democrat or the Republican. This is known as the generic ballot question, and, historically, Democrats have enjoyed an advantage on it.
They don’t at the moment. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last weekend found that registered voters preferred a generic Republican candidate to a generic Democratic one by a 10-point margin, a historic advantage for the party. FiveThirtyEight’s average of generic-ballot polling shows how widely 2022 polling diverges from the past two contests.
It isn’t just the Post-ABC poll that shows the GOP with an edge here.
House retirements. One advantage that the Democrats enjoy is that they have more incumbents up for reelection than do the Republicans. (After all, the Democrats are in the majority.) But that’s likely to change. Already 14 House Democrats have announced that they don’t plan to seek reelection, many of them in districts that could conceivably flip parties.
It’s a bleak cycle for the Democrats: Drooping electoral prospects broadly contribute to retirements, which then lower the chances of the party holding the House. That, then, spurs more long-serving elected officials to head for the exits, leaving public service as victors instead of losers.
Redistricting changes. Compounding that picture this year are the post-census redistricting maps. Changes to House boundaries are often intended to negatively affect one party or the other; in Illinois, for example, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R) faced the dual pressures of fierce opposition from Trump and new congressional boundaries that would probably have tanked his odds of reelection. He’s retiring.
States are still finalizing their maps, but analysis from Cook Political Report estimates that, all else being equal, changes to district boundaries that have already been approved would net the GOP two-and-a-half seats in the House. To hold the chamber as it is, in other words, Democrats would need to pick up at least two seats, all else aside.
A bad trend in off-year elections. Earlier this month, Democrats were stunned by close gubernatorial races in two states that backed Biden by double digits in 2020. In New Jersey, the incumbent Democratic governor barely escaped ouster; in Virginia, the Democrat lost.
Those weren’t the only contests in which Democrats have seen weaker performances. On Tuesday night, voters in Columbia, S.C., elected a Republican, Daniel Rickenmann, as their next mayor — about a year after voters in the county voted for Biden by a 38-point margin.
Obviously, individual races are affected by individual candidates, but an average of the shifts in off-year and special elections since November 2020 compiled by DailyKos finds a 2.8-point change in favor of the Republicans. Before the split-decision 2020 election, the shift was 4.8 points to the Democrats; before the 2018 Democratic wave, it was 11.2 points to the left.
None of this means that Democrats are doomed or that the party won’t be able to hold the House. None of this is irreversible; Biden’s fortunes have declined, but they could reverse. But the party is seeing an unusual, if not historic, set of negative indicators, a superstorm of bad tidings that strongly suggests a bleak midterm election.
Put another way: Democrats might retain the House majority, but I wouldn’t bet on it.