Elections are not linear. They bump along in fits and starts, constantly evolving as they go.
That’s been the story of the 2022 midterm election, which can be divided into three distinct acts.
This portion of the election ran from January 2021 until June 2022. The defining quality of this stage of the election was Joe Biden’s declining popularity – weighed down by the disastrous pullout of American troops from Afghanistan, rising inflation and gas prices. Biden began his term in office with a 57% job approval rating, according to Gallup. By January 2022, it had dipped all the way down to 40% – and it generally stayed there all the way through the summer.
This was, in many ways, the blueprint of a typical midterm election cycle. Presidents in their first midterm tend to suffer considerable losses in Congress as the country looks for ways to check his power. At the same time, the majority party struggles to motivate its side and make clear the stakes to its voters.
This part of the election went from June 24, 2022, until the middle of September 2022. The Supreme Court’s decision overturning of Roe v. Wade had a massive impact on the electorate. It helped erase lethargy within the Democratic base – supercharging the stakes for their side.
Biden’s poll numbers also began to improve in this period as gas prices began to come down. By the end of August, Biden’s job approval rating had rebounded to 44% in Gallup’s polling, and there were plenty of Democrats (and a few Republicans) who believed that ending the constitutional right to an abortion was in the process of fundamentally re-orienting the 2022 race. No longer was it a referendum on Biden’s presidency. Now it was a choice between Biden’s image for America and that of the Republicans, which very much included restricting abortion rights for women.
Democrats began spending heavily on TV ads focused on abortion rights and what Republicans would do to it if they were given power. Republicans, meanwhile, continued to focus their message on taxes, inflation and, increasingly, crime.
This stage of the election began in mid-September and continues through today. And it looks a lot like Act I.
While abortion remains a critical issue for portion of the Democratic base, it does not appear to have the saliency with the middle of the electorate that Democrats might have hoped a few months ago. And the economy has remained the key issue for most voters. In a CNN poll released earlier this week, 51% of likely voters named the economy as the most important issue to their vote for Congress, while just 15% named abortion.
And crime also has become a central issue for many voters. In a recent Gallup poll, roughly 7 in 10 registered voters said crime was either “extremely” or “very” important to their vote – putting the issue behind only the economy.
Nonpartisan campaign handicappers have begun to ratchet their predictions of Republican gains upward in this final act, with some saying that the GOP could gain a net of as many as 30 House seats next Tuesday.
The last two years have been a wild ride. There was a point not so long ago where Democrats believed that they might be able to buck the historical precedent that pointed to major gains for Republicans in the House. And, even now, there remains hope in Democratic circles that they may be able to hold the Senate majority, which would be a major accomplishment given what we know about the electorate at the moment.
But, overall, this election today looks a whole lot like we thought it might look like less than two years ago. Biden’s numbers are poor. Concerns about inflation and a possible recession are rampant. Crime is a dark horse issue working in Republicans’ favor. And abortion, while still a potent issue for some, appears to have moved to the back burner in many voters’ minds.
Add it all up, and it looks like Tuesday will be a very good election for Republicans. Which is what we thought when this whole play got started.