The big picture

Biden’s approval ratings, worries about inflation and pure exhaustion have Democrats bracing for potential losses

(Lucy Naland/Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Every election has a story.

In 2010, the story was an angry tea party movement and a rebellion against President Barack Obama’s newly enacted Affordable Care Act. In 2018, it was a backlash, fueled by the energy and fury of suburban women, against the chaotic governing style and misogynistic belligerence of President Donald Trump.

The stories of some elections are often clearer in retrospect than they are in the moment, but there were blinking lights throughout 2010 and 2018 that the party in control of the White House was heading for trouble. The same can be said for 2022. President Biden’s approval ratings are in the danger zone, putting the Democrats’ slender majorities in the House and Senate in jeopardy. Many Democratic leaders are already braced, at a minimum, to lose control of the House.

Political volatility has become commonplace in a nation as deeply and closely divided as America today. Seven of the last eight elections qualify as change elections — a shift in the balance in some important way. And, if Republicans were to capture the House and Senate in November, Biden would become the fifth consecutive president to see his party lose both chambers of Congress on his watch.

But other than Democratic nervousness, what is the story of this year? What is motivating voters? What forces are steering the election, other than the tides of history?

Analysts point to a nation weary at a time in which there seems no escape from disorder, whether it be the long bout with the coronavirus or soaring prices or rising crime rates in cities or surging crossings of undocumented immigrants at the southern border. Added to all of that is the brutal war of aggression in Ukraine launched without provocation by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a conflict that is redrawing the international order.

“This is a country that is exhausted from politics,” said Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik, who served in the Clinton administration. “It’s exhausted from covid. It’s exhausted from uncertainty. It’s exhausted from inflation. It’s exhausted from the world unraveling. That’s not great when you’re in charge. But the second factor is disappointment. There was a notion that with Biden taking office we were going to come back to a sense of normalcy in the world.”

“Independent voters decide elections," said Richard Czuba, a Michigan-based analyst. "Right now [in Michigan] they are really worried about inflation — and it’s not just gas prices. You talk to people in focus groups and they will talk about milk and bread and cereal. They understand that gas prices have soared because of the war in Ukraine, but that’s not the case for food.”

There is another element that now threatens to affect the direction of these elections: the prospect that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, a monumental action that would elevate a battle over the future of abortion rights into the campaign debates. Such a decision in the case involving Mississippi’s restrictive abortion law could cut into what is now a Republican advantage in enthusiasm to vote in November.

Biden administration officials and Democratic candidates will offer their own story as a counter to the prevailing gloomy predictions. Their narrative will highlight passage of a major economic stimulus package and a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the creation of roughly 8 million jobs and the lowest unemployment rate in a half-century. Their story now also includes confirmation of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court — a promise kept by the president to one of his party’s most loyal constituencies. Democrats also will seek to offset their disadvantages by mobilizing voters around abortion and other cultural issues.

Democrats hope that, by later this summer, conditions will have improved, particularly on the inflation front. If that happens, they say voters could reassess their impressions of Biden and that undecided voters will think hard about returning power to a Republican Party that remains in Trump’s grip. That assumes that by later this year, there are no significant worries about a looming recession.

Politics are always volatile — and with the election months away, surprises can occur. Campaigns make a difference, as do the qualities of individual candidates, especially in statewide races for Senate and governor. But when Democratic strategists concede that this has been the worst environment they’ve seen in many years and the party’s majorities are as small as they are, there’s every reason for the party’s candidates to be worried.

Bret Niles, the Democratic Party chair in Linn County, Iowa, said party activists in the state hope to show that Iowa hasn’t turned bright red over the past half-dozen years, but added, “There isn’t quite that enthusiasm in terms of getting back to what it was in 2018.”

Although there are some signs that young voters are motivated, Faiz Shakir, a longtime adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), recalled the impressions he took away from meetings the senator had with young workers trying to organize unions at Amazon and Starbucks. “If you ask them about 2022, you’re speaking in a foreign language,” he said of people who, if they vote, probably would vote Democratic. “It’s not even on the radar.”

One other factor contributes to the backdrop of this election year: the future and fate of democracy. Trump continues to tell lies about what happened in 2020. And in many states, followers who believe those lies are running for office, including for secretary of state positions overseeing the administration of elections. Democracy itself will be part of the choice for voters this November.

For most of this year, 2022 has been an election about broken confidence between the president and many of the voters who helped elect him; rising inflation that the administration initially underestimated; a Democratic Party whose cultural liberalism has met resistance outside of the biggest cities; and suburban voters, particularly women, who shifted to the Democrats during Trump’s administration and now are up for grabs. Whether the Supreme Court changes that with its pending abortion decision is the major, unanswered, question.

“The story, one might say, is the way in which Democrats’ choices have combined with unanticipated events to a create a degree of political vulnerability that they [Democrats] could not imagine on Jan. 20, 2021,” said William Galston of the Brookings Institution. “Now it’s as though a dam is leaking in multiple places and there are not enough Dutch boys with fingers to hold the water back. If the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision foreshadows its final judgment, however, the backlash among previously dispirited Democrats may be enough to bring them to the polls in November."

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About this story

Illustrations by Lucy Naland based on photos by Demetrius Freeman, Jabin Botsford, Nitashia Johnson and Craig Hudson, graphics by The Washington Post and additional imagery from iStock.

Story editing by Philip Rucker. Copy editing by Thomas Heleba. Project editing by Jay Wang. Design and development by Tyler Remmel and Jake Crump. Design editing by Madison Walls. Graphics by Chris Alcantara. Graphics editing by Kevin Uhrmacher. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti. Additional editing by Rachel Van Dongen, Ashlyn Still and Jenna Johnson.