Democrats gird for loss of Congress as voters break late to GOP
Bloomberg October 31, 2022
Democrats' prospects for holding on to Congress are fading a week before the U.S. election as voters focus on economic concerns rather than the rollback of abortion rights, bolstering Republicans who have made inflation a central issue in the race.
Inflation is still high, and a recession seems a near-certainty. Gasoline prices dipped but remain costlier than average, and Democratic and independent outrage over abortion issues doesn't seem strong enough to overshadow that.
Combine those factors with weak performances by Democrats in key debates and strategic messaging from Republicans, and it's looking as if President Joe Biden is facing a "shellacking" similar to what Barack Obama endured in his first midterm election in 2010.
"You probably won't have a 2010-type thing. There aren't as many competitive races," said Doug Sosnik, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton. "But that doesn't mean it won't be a big day for Republicans."
Sosnik said the dynamics of the election shifted in "the last 20 days or so."
"There were sets of numbers that came out in September which showed that we're probably headed for a much more difficult period coming up," he said. "Interest rates kept going up. And so the economic conditions started rolling backwards."
Republicans have pounced on the negative economic data, with inflation running at levels not seen since the early 1980s. At the same time, there are signs that Democrats have wrung out all of the angst that they could over abortion.
Since Labor Day, slightly more than 1 of every 5 Republican ads have mentioned inflation, according to AdImpact, which tracks political spending. Democrats touch on the issue in fewer than 1 of every 20 ads they air.
Over the same period, Democrats mentioned the abortion issue in 44% of their ads. Republicans avoided the subject, raising it in just 3% of their ads.
Democrats' problems were compounded in recent weeks by underwhelming debate performances by two Senate candidates, incumbent Raphael G. Warnock of Georgia and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. Those two states are among a handful that will determine control of the upper chamber.
The Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, Herschel Walker, delivered a better-than-expected debate performance that resuscitated his scandal-ridden campaign. Two polls taken since Fetterman's rocky showing against Mehmet Oz have shown the Republican take the lead after being down by double digits as recently as August.
One from the New York Times and Siena College released Monday, however, showed Fetterman up 49% to 44%. That poll also shows Democratic candidates leading in Arizona and Georgia and the Nevada race tied at 47%.
Walker and Oz are endorsed by former president Donald Trump.
The Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling in June that overturned federal abortion rights electrified the Democratic base, fueling the party's hopes that it could buck historical trends to maintain a narrow congressional majority.
But a RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Republican Adam Laxalt with a 1.2-percentage-point lead over incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada's Senate contest. In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican incumbent, has widened his lead over Democrat Mandela Barnes in a race that was neck and neck. In Arizona, Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly's lead against Republican Blake Masters has eroded to just over a percentage point, according to RealClearPolitics.
Laxalt, Johnson and Masters are also backed by Trump.
Republicans always had stronger chances to retake the House, given that gerrymandering makes it easier to pick up the five seats that they need for a majority. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report last week increased its outlook for House GOP pickups to as many as 25 seats from a previous forecast of as many as 20.
The projection is close to historical norms, with the president's party on average losing 25.8 House seats in the 19 prior midterm elections since World War II.
In most cases, support for Democratic candidates hasn't been dropping, said Republican pollster Robert Blizzard. Instead, previously undecided voters who are unhappy with Biden, the economy and the direction of the country are largely gravitating toward the GOP as Election Day nears.
"Not as much has changed as people think it has," Blizzard said. "Democrats hit their head on the Biden approval ceiling."
Even a wide cash advantage hasn't been enough to steady Democrats.
Democrats spent $277 million on media for House and Senate races between the Dobbs decision and the end of the summer, according to AdImpact, more than the $241 million Republicans spent.
They are also outspending Republicans in the period after Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the general election campaign, $1.1 billion to $945 million. And GOP candidates and their surrogates are slated to be outspent in the three weeks before voters go to the polls.
But public discontent over the economy is too daunting.
Consumer confidence, after improving while gasoline prices were dropping during the summer, turned back down in October. Concern about inflation rose again and perceptions of the economy deteriorated to the worst in more than a year, according to the Conference Board's monthly survey.
Fears of a recession on the horizon are also intensifying. Private economists, on average, forecast a 60% chance of a recession within a year, and one of the financial markets' most reliable predictors of recession is flashing red. The yield curve for bonds has inverted, with investors demanding higher yields for short-term debt than for long-term debt.
The Federal Reserve's campaign of interest-rate increases has driven mortgage rates above 7%, a jarring leap from recent years and the highest in more than two decades.
At the same time, two-thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong path and only 43% approve of the job Biden is doing as president, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
"The sea is angry out there, my friend," John Anzalone, Biden's pollster, said in an interview, invoking a line from the television show "Seinfeld." "People have intense concerns and frustration on inflation and crime, but also on abortion rights and threats to democracy. Everything is onerous to people right now."
Recent polling misses ahead of elections inject some uncertainty into the state of play. Response rates for telephone polls have been dropping, making it hard to ascertain whether support for all candidates is accurately measured.
Modeling turnout for midterm elections also can be difficult since fewer people usually vote than in presidential elections. Easier access to early voting and a surge of anger among abortion rights supporters over the Supreme Court ruling could alter turnout patterns.
Still, Sosnik said that Democrats fumbled on putting together a strong message on the economy, highlighting legislation that lowered prescription drug costs and drawing philosophical contrasts with Republicans on tax cuts for the wealthy.
"The day after the midterms it's going to be a completely different political environment than what we have today," Sosnik said.
"All of the political incentives, its going to be for more fighting, less cooperation," he said. "You're going to have probably both parties having primaries for president, which is going to incentivize people of both parties to move — in the case of Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left. With divided government, nothing's going to happen in Washington."