It’s not a great time to be a House Democrat. President Joe Biden’s approval rating just keeps sinking and history suggests that the coming midterm election is going to be a very nasty one for his side, with most neutral observers already predicting that Republicans will win the House majority this November.
So, when the outlook is that dark and gloomy, any sliver of light is welcome. And as of late, there are a few small signs that the coming election might not be a total disaster for Democrats.
The first piece of good news comes via the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, which released its updated Partisan Voting Index earlier this week.
The PVI seeks to compare every district in the country to every other district, providing a sense of where each stands based on the results of the last two presidential elections. A district with a PVI of D+2, for example, voted two points more Democratic than the national result. A seat with a PV of R+5 voted five points more Republican. Get it? Got it? Good!
In an analysis of the PVI results, the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman concludes that there has been a somewhat steep decline in the number of competitive seats across the country following the decennial redistricting process that has taken place over the past 18 months or so.
“Going by the 2020 presidential result, ‘swing seats’ cratered by more than a third: prior to redistricting, there were 51 seats that either Joe Biden or Donald Trump carried by less than five points. After the remap, there are just 33 — a steep 35 percent drop.”
That decline is slightly less sharp, but still apparent when you consider the broader spectrum of seats with PVI scores between R+5 and D+5. Prior to the redistricting process, 90 seats fit that bill. Now just 82 do.
Why is the decline in highly competitive seats a good thing for Democrats? Simple. While Republicans only need a net gain of four seats to take control of the House, if they want to achieve a large, governing majority in 2023, they will need to beat a lot of Democratic incumbents who sit in seats that Biden won by a considerable amount.
Which could happen! As Politico wrote earlier this week:
“With just four months until the midterms, Democrats were already on the defensive in at least 30 highly competitive districts. But Biden’s toxicity has given the GOP optimism about seriously contesting a fresh crop of about a dozen seats that the president won in 2020 by 9 points or more — from western Rhode Island to California’s Central Valley to the suburbs of Arizona’s capital. The result is a House map that has expanded to an uncomfortable place for Democrats.”
Like I said: Possible! But it’s politics 101 that it’s harder to beat a Democratic incumbent in a seat Biden won by 10 points in 2020 than one in a district Biden carried by 1 point. And to pick up 30+ seats, Republicans are going to have to beat a whole lot of Democratic incumbents in districts that clearly lean to their party – at least at the presidential level.
The second piece of relative good news for Democrats comes in the generic ballot test. This is a poll question that seeks to gauge support for a generic House Democratic candidate against a generic House Republican candidate and is broadly predictive of which way the national winds are blowing. (The question usually goes something like: “If the election were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate or Republican candidate for House?”)
A New York Times/Siena College poll out this week showed that among registered voters nationally, 41% said they would back the Democratic candidate, while 40% chose the Republican one. (Among voters likely to cast a ballot this fall, 44% opted for the Republican candidate while 43% chose the Democrat.)
It’s also worth noting that the generic ballot question has historically favored Democrats by a few points, so a virtual tie between the parties is rightly read as an edge for the Republicans.
None of this data changes the underlying reality of this election: Biden is deeply unpopular and, in past midterm elections, when the president is unpopular, his party in the House tends to sustain heavy damage.
But for Democrats, who have spent the last seven months being barraged by a seemingly endless stream of bad news, these twin developments suggest that the worst-case scenario may, in fact, not come to pass.