1. President Biden needs to be more popular
Midterm elections are referendums on a presidency. Traditionally, that’s meant bad news for the party in power, as voters compare the president’s campaign promises with the reality of what he got done so far, said Laura Smith, a presidential historian at Oxford University.
“There’s often this huge gap between expectations of the president and the realities,” she said.
For Democrats, the expectations game has the potential to be particularly bruising. They technically won control of Congress and the White House in 2020, but narrow majorities have greatly limited what they can accomplish.
How much more popular does Biden need to get to help his party? History suggests quite a bit.
Before the 2010 Republican wave, Republicans trying to take back the House under similar circumstances calculated that if President Barack Obama’s approval rating was at or below 46 percent, they’d have a good night, said Doug Heye, the communications director for the Republican National Committee at the time. Obama was at 44 or 45 percent the week of the election, and Republicans ended up winning 63 swing districts, giving them control of the House.
Next year, Republicans will start much closer to the finish line. They only need to net five seats in 2022 to take back the House majority, and just one in the Senate.
As for how Biden improves his standing among Americans, that’s a question without a clear answer.
2. The economy needs to improve, crime needs to go down, and the border crisis needs to be mitigated
Or, at least, Americans’ perceptions of the economy and crime rates and what’s happening at the border need to improve. While unemployment is going down and wages are going up, polls show Americans still believe the pandemic economy is struggling — goods cost more, and global supply chain issues make it more difficult to buy things.
The midterms specifically tend to center on kitchen table issues, Smith said.
But much of what’s ailing the American economy is out of Biden’s hands. The Wall Street Journal reports that some of the burden on the supply chain is easing, but things might not return to normal until next year. There’s little agreement on when or how to reduce inflation.
3. They need to pivot their messaging to the economy
Democrats have used their time so far in power to pursue sought-after liberal priorities. They passed an infrastructure bill to invest in new roads, bridges and broadband. And they’re on their way to dramatically expanding the government safety net and lowering carbon emissions.
But do Democrats risk missing the mark of what voters, right at this moment, care about?
“Voters think we are focused on social issues, not the economy,” write analysts for the center-left think tank, Third Way. They recently interviewed suburban voters in Virginia to understand why they chose a Republican governor over a Democrat, and warned: “They aren’t hearing us talk about the economy enough.”
Biden is considering making this pivot soon. As he tours a decrepit bridge in New Hampshire and an electric vehicle factor in Detroit to champion infrastructure investments, the White House is also considering an offense to blame corporations for inflation, reports The Post’s Jeff Stein, likely as a way to signal that they’re on top of rising prices.
4. Democrats need to fight Republican-influenced redistricting
The economy and Biden’s popularity could greatly improve, Democrats could sharpen their messages to focus on voters’ wallets, and they could still lose the House because Republicans could just draw themselves into power in a handful of seats before elections are even held.
This election will be held under newly drawn congressional districts across the nation. Redistricting happens once every 10 years, a constitutionally mandated process based on new census data.
Many states delegate the map-drawing process to state legislatures, and Republicans are in charge in many swing states that will decide control of the House of Representatives. (Both sides gerrymander when given the chance.)
To counteract this, Democrats have two options:
1. Weaken the filibuster in the Senate and pass federal legislation ASAP that curbs Republicans’ ability to gerrymander (of course, any move to weaken the filibuster could easily backfire on Democrats when Republicans are next in power).
2. Challenge the maps in state courts. The nonpartisan political analysts at Cook Political Report pinpoint Florida, North Carolina and Texas as three states where Republican-drawn maps can automatically give Republicans several congressional seats. Democrats have had recent success challenging North Carolina’s maps in particular to obtain congressional districts that are less slanted toward Republicans, but the legal fight took years.
Democrats don’t have that kind of time; the midterms are less than a year away, and they’ve got a lot of work to do to convince voters to let them stay in power.