Democrats have to defy history to hold onto the House in the 2022 midterms. As I’ve noted before, the president’s party almost always loses House seats in the midterms. History, though, is a guide, not a fortune teller.
This week’s special election in New Mexico’s 1st congressional district is part of a larger trend that shows us that if President Joe Biden remains as popular as he is now, Democrats have a fighting chance to maintain House control.
Democrat Melanie Stansbury beat Republican Mark Moores by 26 points in the special election to replace Deb Haaland, who represented the district until she joined the Biden administration as interior secretary earlier this year. She did so in a district that Biden won by 23 points in 2020, Haaland took it by 16 points that same year and Hillary Clinton won by 17 points in 2016. In other words, Stansbury didn’t just match but slightly exceeded the baseline Democratic performance in the district.
Of course, this was just one special election. But there have been a slew of special elections, mostly on the state legislative level since Biden became president, that seem to indicate something similar. Look at these specials using the past two presidential elections (giving more weight to 2020) as a baseline.
Democrats seem to be doing 2 points to 5 points better than you’d expect in a neutral political environment, depending on whether you look at all special elections involving at least one Democrat and Republican or those taking place with only one Democrat and one Republican.
This 2 to 5 point Democratic advantage matches pretty much what we saw in the national congressional generic ballot. It is also pretty much identical to the results we witnessed in last year’s election. Biden won by 4.5 points nationally, and Democrats were victorious in the national House vote by about 3 points.
The common thread through these special elections is that Biden is popular. His approval rating has been north of 50% throughout his entire presidency. When we limit ourselves to only polling that asked voters (i.e. not all adults), Biden’s approval rating is still above 50%.
Presidential approval ratings aren’t all that matter during midterm elections – but they do matter. There have been six presidents who have lost House majorities during a midterm in the polling era. All but Dwight Eisenhower (a war hero who always seemed to do worse politically than his approval rating indicated) had an approval rating below 50%.
Put another way, the presidents whose parties lost the House in midterm elections were almost all more unpopular than Biden is right now.
Now, that may not save Democrats next fall because all but the most popular presidents have lost seats in midterms, even if their party didn’t lose House control. The Democrats have almost no room to spare as they won a slim majority in the 2020 elections.
The potential saving grace for Democrats is the relationship between midterm voting patterns and approval of the president has only increased over time. Since 2006, the president’s party has won at least 86% of those voters who approve of the job the president is doing. They have never lost more than 90% of voters who disapprove of the president’s job during the same period.
The bottom line is that if you approve of the president, you’re very likely to vote for his party, and if you disapprove, you’re very likely to vote for the opposition in this polarized era.
In 2018, Republican House candidates won 88% of those who approved of Donald Trump’s job performance and lost 90% who disapproved. Republicans lost the House because more voters disapproved of Trump (54%) than approved (45%).
Biden, at this point, is inverse of this with an approval rating in the mid 50s and a disapproval rating in the low 40s.
Again, history suggests that Biden and particularly the Democrats’ position should fade. I have pointed out that the White House party’s position on the generic ballot from this point to the election should get worse. Additionally, special election results sometimes can get worse for a party the further we get from the beginning of the presidential term.
But Biden has one thing going for him that acts as a counter to the normal cycle: an approval rating that is steadiest for any president since World War II through this point in his term. He didn’t experience a big honeymoon in his approval rating after his inauguration, and he hasn’t seen a decline either. Biden’s current approval rating looks awfully similar to the 52% who held a favorable view of him in the 2020 exit polls.
If Biden doesn’t lose ground going forward, the 2022 midterms may prove to be an ahistorical event.