To avoid the worst-case scenario in November, Democrats must defy one of the most powerful trends shaping modern congressional elections. Recent polls have provided them a glimmer of optimism that they might do just that.
That trend is the tightening correlation between voters’ attitudes toward a president and their support for US House, Senate and even gubernatorial candidates from his party. With President Joe Biden’s approval ratings falling to the lowest levels of his presidency, that traditional pattern threatens Democrats with sweeping losses in November’s midterm elections.
But even as Biden has continued to sink, other Democrats running this year have stabilized or improved their positions in a spate of recent polls, both in several major Senate races and in measures of which party voters say they intend to support for the House of Representatives.
The question is whether this “decoupling,” as many political professionals call it, is a temporary blip in public opinion – or a reflection of enduring public doubts about the Donald Trump-era GOP that may override the typical reflex of voters unhappy with the president to vote for the other party.
“The fundamental question is: have forces been unleashed in the electorate that are more powerful than disappointment in Joe Biden?” says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic research and advocacy group. “I would argue they have. Opposition to MAGA [the Trump movement] has been the driving force in the last two elections and it is likely to be the driving force in this one as well.”
Still, no one underestimates how sharp a break from recent history it will represent if Democrats en masse can escape the undertow of Biden’s sinking approval ratings. “It’s hard to fight history,” says Republican consultant Matt Gorman, who served as communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2018 election, when a wave of discontent with Trump cost House Republicans dozens of seats. “It’s extremely hard.”
A growing alignment
Veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres, in a view seconded by political professionals in each party, describes other candidates’ vulnerabilities to attitudes about the president as a concentric circle. Members of the House, who tend to be lesser known in their districts, are at the greatest risk in a national backlash against the president. Senators, who are much more visible figures and usually raise vastly more money to define themselves through television advertising, are at somewhat less risk. And governors, who can match or exceed senators in their local visibility and have the added insulation of handling state, not federal, issues, are the most likely to control their own fate. “Governors have the most independent images from the national party, followed by senators, followed by congressmen,” Ayres says.
The converse is true too: because Senate and governor’s races have so much more visibility, it’s easier for incumbents to drive attention toward vulnerabilities in their challengers, as Democrats hope to do with Trump-endorsed Republican nominees such as Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate race and Doug Mastriano in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest.
Even so, on every front, it has become harder for either party to escape attitudes about the president while their party controls the White House.
The election exit polls over the past several decades quantify that change. As late as the midterm elections of 1986 and 1990, the exit polls found, only about three-fourths of voters who said they disapproved of the President’s performance (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively) voted Democratic in House elections, while only a little less than two-thirds of those who approved of their performance voted Republican.
But in 1994, when widespread discontent over Democratic President Bill Clinton’s first two years propelled Republicans to control of both the House and Senate, over four-fifths of those who disapproved of him voted Republican for the House, while over four-fifths of those who approved (a much smaller group) voted Democratic, the exit polls found. The proportions were similar when Democrats swept back into control of both chambers amid disillusionment with President George W. Bush in 2006 – and when Republicans recaptured the House in 2010 amid the “tea party” backlash against President Barack Obama.
By 2018, when Democrats won back the House, the relationship was even tighter: exactly 90% of those who disapproved of Trump said they voted for Democrats, while fully 88% of those who approved pulled the lever for the GOP. That intense alignment between attitudes toward Trump and the vote in House races held true for every major group in the electorate, whether measuring by age, race, education or partisanship, according to detailed results provided by Edison Research, which conducts the exit polls for a media consortium that includes CNN.
Senate races have largely followed the same trajectory. In 2006, Republicans lost 19 of the 20 Senate races in states where Bush’s approval rating fell to 45% or less in the exit polls. In 2010, Democrats likewise lost 13 of the 15 where Obama stood at 47% or less. In 2018, Republicans lost all 10 of the Senate races in states where Trump’s approval rating registered at 48% or below; in every major Senate race that year, the exit polls found that at least 90% of those who disapproved of Trump voted for the Democratic candidate, except in Florida, Indiana and Michigan, where 89% did. Even in the major governor’s races, it was common for GOP candidates to win about 9 in 10 of those voters who approved of Trump and lose about 9 in 10 of those who disapproved, the exit polls found.
Gary Jacobson, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, says these trends reflect the growing tendency of voters to treat congressional elections in particular as parliamentary contests that are less a choice between individuals than between which party they want to control the majority and set the agenda – a decision shaped heavily by their verdict on the president. “You are not going to sacrifice your notion of who you want to run the institution to pick a nicer person,” he says.
Hope for some of this year’s Democratic candidates
This is the modern history that now looms, like the sheer face of a cliff, before Democrats as they contemplate a November election with Biden facing widespread disapproval. But the past few weeks have provided Democrats tantalizing signs that at least some of their candidates may be able to scale that hurdle.
Democrats have been buoyed by several surveys after the Supreme Court decision striking down the legal right to abortion that showed the party running about even, or slightly ahead, of Republicans in tests of voters’ preference on the generic congressional ballot. A recent poll from Quinnipiac University in Georgia found Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock holding a comfortable lead over Walker even while Biden’s approval in the state had fallen below 40%. Likewise, a June Marquette University Law School survey found Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin slightly trailing the leading Democratic contenders (who still face an August primary) even though Biden’s approval there had fallen to exactly 40%.
“The story of Senate races is that they are candidate versus candidate battles and in each of the Senate battlegrounds the Democratic incumbent or candidate is demonstrating that they have their own strong brand and identity,” independent of attitudes about Biden, argues David Bergstein, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In each of those Senate surveys, according to results provided to CNN by the pollsters, the Republican candidate was winning only between two-thirds and three-fourths of voters who disapproved of Biden’s performance. That’s far below the 85%-90% support that’s become common in recent elections among the president’s disapprovers for candidates from the other party. With such results in mind, Rosenberg, one of the most aggressive proponents of the decoupling theory, insists, “The underlying structure of the election has completely changed.”
Most others I spoke with are more cautious. Many pointed to factors that could allow for Democrats to run further ahead of Biden’s approval rating than has been common recently, but they also note other dynamics that point to that traditional link maintaining its power.
The most obvious source of potential improvement for Democratic candidates over Biden is voters in their own party. One reason Biden’s overall rating is so low is that multiple national surveys have found that only about three-fourths or less of Democrats give him positive marks. But it’s unlikely many of those Democrats will express their dissatisfaction with Biden by voting for Republicans in November. The recent Senate polls quantify that dynamic. In Quinnipiac’s Georgia survey, for instance, 97% of Democrats said they are supporting Warnock over Walker, even though only 72% of Democrats said they approved of Biden’s performance.
Young people are demonstrating the most striking gap between discontent over Biden and support for Democratic candidates. Those two recent Senate polls found Democrats holding substantial leads among voters younger than 34, even though Biden’s approval rating with those same groups had tumbled below 30% in Georgia and to around 40% in Wisconsin. A recent Monmouth University national survey found that almost 3 in 5 voters younger than 34 wanted Democrats to control Congress, even though only a little more than 1 in 4 of those young adults approved of Biden’s performance. In these state and national surveys, Democratic candidates are also running well above Biden’s anemic approval rating among independents.
Democrats see these contrasts as evidence that many voters disenchanted with Biden remain even more alienated from a Republican Party defined by its loyalty to Trump. While attitudes toward the sitting president have heavily shaped all recent midterm campaigns, in “none of those past elections, none of them, was there a boogeyman lurking just offstage like there is right now,” says long-time Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. Continued resistance to Trump, and his vision for the country, Maslin argues, has created “a counterweight against Biden [discontent] that didn’t exist with all of those past presidents. This is a totally unique situation.”
Still, the dynamics working against Democrats remain formidable too. Democrats are “up against a really strong economic tide and general unhappiness with the direction of the country and all those kinds of things don’t bode well for the party in power,” says Jacobson. Gorman, the GOP consultant, likewise argues that while the party holding the White House may successfully shift the public’s attention for a while – as Republicans tried to do in 2018 with their emphasis on a migrant “caravan” from Central America – eventually most voters make their choice based on fundamentals such as their views of the economy and the incumbent president. Persuading voters to put more weight on their doubts about the party out of power, as Democrats are now attempting, is “easier said than done,” he says.
Moreover, Biden’s decline may threaten an even wider range of candidates than Trump’s did in 2018. While only 45% of voters nationwide approved of Trump’s performance, the exit polls found, his approval exceeded 50% that year – and thus boosted GOP prospects – in four states where Republicans ousted Democratic senators: Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. But even many Democrats believe that Biden has fallen below majority approval in all of the states with key contests this November. And few on either side believe he will recover much between now and then.
“Some significant event is going to have to happen to change perceptions,” says Ayres, the GOP pollster. “Once people make up their minds that you are really not up to the job, it is real tough to try to change that perception. I think that’s settled in right now. It’s like Jimmy Carter. People decided this peanut farmer wasn’t quite up to the job and once people reach that judgment, it is real hard to get them to change their minds.”
Another factor working against Democrats is that turnout among the younger voters who have become so central to their coalition has traditionally plummeted in midterm elections. The likeliest impact of young voters’ disillusionment with Biden, many strategists say, is another turnout dip in 2022, which would create huge problems for Democrats.
A critical variable for Democrats is how much they can offset that disappointment by reminding not only young voters but all the other key pillars of their coalition – from suburban women to African American voters – why they came out in such record numbers to oppose Trump’s vision for America in both 2018 and 2020. Hardly any Republican candidates across the country have renounced that vision; to varying degrees, almost all GOP nominees have praised Trump and welcomed his support.
The foundation of Rosenberg’s against-the-grain optimism is his belief that these recent Democratic voters will show up again to oppose a Republican Party that has continued to embrace Trump’s leadership and is threatening so many values Democrats prize, on issues from abortion to voting rights, through actions at the Supreme Court and in red states.
“The combination of the Roe decision, the return of mass shootings and the January 6 conspiracy that’s been [revealed] … is going to remind people about everything they didn’t like about Republicans,” Rosenberg says. “Republicans have run consistently toward a politics that has been voted against by more people than any in the history of this country.”
The huge complication for Democrats is that many of the voters who opposed Trump and his agenda in the past two elections are now also disillusioned with the performance of Biden and the Democrats. Maslin estimates that voters who are sour on both Trump and Biden could constitute nearly one-third of the electorate. More than any group, they may determine whether a red wave truly crests in November.
“If you’ve got 30% of the American people saying, ‘I don’t like Joe Biden and I don’t like Donald Trump,’” Maslin says, “It goes back to: how do they make a judgment this year?”