Democrats have reason to worry they are fading at a bad time ahead of the midterm elections after a summer surge fueled optimism that the party could reverse historic trends and retain Congressional control.
A New York Times-Siena College poll released on Monday found Republicans held a 49-45 lead over Democrats in generic balloting about a month before the November election. That’s a change from September, when the same poll found Democrats ahead of Republicans by 1 percentage point.
This poll followed a trend among other surveys that, as recently as late September, showed Democrats leading Republicans on the generic ballot, only for the lead to shrink or disappear altogether.
For some strategists, the Democrats’ change in fortune is a matter of timing.
Ethan Winter, an analyst with the progressive group Data for Progress, said the outlook for Democrats has improved over the summer, with the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade coinciding with falling gasoline prices and economic reports indicating inflation was cooling.
“The outlook for inflation improved a bit as gasoline prices fell, then worsened again, and the momentum of this cycle followed with these sorts of basic economic indicators,” Winter said.
Winter also noted that Democrats began spending on ads in key battleground states earlier than Republicans, leading some Senate candidates in particular to open poll leads that have since dissipated in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as Republicans ran their own ads.
Democrats appeared to turn a hot midsummer streak into real momentum with voters, renewing hopes for a strong showing in November. Gasoline prices in August have fallen dramatically from the roughly $5 a gallon they averaged at the start of the summer. Congress passed bipartisan legislation to boost investment in solid-state computer chips, and Democrats coalesced around a $740 billion bill to fight climate change and cut healthcare costs health.
Several summer polls had shown Democrats even with Republicans or ahead. A Politico-Morning Consult poll from Aug. 17 showed Democrats leading by 4 percentage points. A September 28 media poll found the Democrats still leading by 2 percentage points. And a Sept. 30 poll from Yahoo News and YouGov found Democrats ahead of the GOP by 4 percentage points.
These polls bolstered confidence among Democratic leaders that the party was able to not only avoid big Republican gains, but perhaps even add to its majority in the House and Senate despite overwhelming historical trends. that the president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections.
“I believe we will hold the House,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Oct. 4 on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” crediting party organizing, messaging and fundraising.
President Biden expressed his optimism about both houses of Congress two days later at a Democratic National Committee (DNC) event.
“So far, it looks like in the Senate, not only will we hold, but maybe we’ll get a few seats,” Biden said, acknowledging that Democrats were “uphill” due to the election history of mid-term.
“And second, the House is … we don’t have as many seats to defend – I mean, compared to where we are, but – but, you know, a lot of gerrymandering in the House across the country, because that a lot of governors are not Democratic governors,” Biden added.
But the political landscape has changed on Democrats in a short time, putting them on the defensive in key areas.
Inflation accelerated for the second month in a row in September, with consumer prices rising at a faster pace than expected. Consumer price index data showed inflation rose 0.4% in September and 8.2% over the past 12 months.
The average gasoline price is $3.89 a gallon, according to AAA data, up about 20 cents from a month ago.
Biden recently argued that inflation would get worse if Republicans won control of Congress, portraying Democrats as the party defending working people.
He has been adamant that the United States is not heading into a recession, but he acknowledged in an interview with CNN last week that there is a possibility of a “very mild recession.”
The New York Times poll released on Monday found that 44% of voters identified the economy as the biggest problem facing the country, up from 36% in July.
Susan MacManus, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida, argued that this close to the election, the economy would need to see a very significant improvement to change voters’ minds.
“Gasoline and grocery prices are a big deal for Democrats,” she said. “It would have to be a dramatic fall for it to change the narrative.”
The focus on other national issues, including abortion, student loans and gun violence, may also have cooled since the summer months, with the economy remaining at the forefront of voters’ concerns.
These issues are particularly important for young voters, the majority of whom historically do not contest midterm elections. MacManus said Democrats should “pivot to try to please young voters” when speaking specifically about student loans.
Biden announced on Monday that the application for the administration’s Student Loan Forgiveness Program, which was unveiled in August, is now live and that more than 8 million Americans had already applied over a period of soft launch which began on Friday.
The president will participate in an event on reproductive rights on Tuesday. When asked why he was focusing on abortion issues now, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that the president had spoken about the Republicans’ “assault” on the right to abortion “for several months”.
Ivan Zapien, lobbyist and former DNC official, argued that tough polls could motivate the Democratic base with less than a month to go before the midterm elections.
“Would you rather the polls say you’re going to win?” Shit yeah. But on the other hand, if you’re looking to motivate your base, [there’s] nothing like a poll saying everything you care about is going to go down the drain,” he said.
Zapien argued that with 22 days to go before the election, Democrats have planned well.
“Your vote totals are locked and everything is running,” Zapien said. “Democrats always knew it was going to be tight and planned accordingly.”
Some officials also believe the outlook is skewed by Democrats and pundits who think anything short of maintaining or growing party majorities will be a disappointment.
The president’s party has won seats in a midterm election only twice in the past 80 years: in 1998 during former President Clinton’s second term and in 2002 during the first term. of former President George W. Bush the year after the September 11 attacks.
Biden’s low approval ratings, a series of stark inflation reports and losses in some special elections had the makings of a red wave to come in November. But a recent poll indicated that Democrats could narrowly retain control of the Senate and lose the House by just a few seats.
“Prior to this summer, the hard data on the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections, in particular, and the specials before Dobbs indicated that Democrats would suffer a midterm rout,” said Winter, an analyst at Data for Progress. . “And polls to date suggest the surge has likely been averted.”