The Democrats are in trouble months away from the midterm elections. Historical trends don’t favor them. Since 1938, the president’s party has lost House seats in all but two such cycles. Neither do the polls. The generic congressional ballot has Republicans up by 4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average.
President Joe Biden’s approval rating stands at just 41.1% in the same average of polls, with 54% disapproving. Some individual surveys have Biden’s job approval in the 30s. In an election likely to be a referendum, those are not favorable conditions for down-ballot Democrats. Finally, the Democrats' majorities are so small (50-50 in the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, 221-209 in the House) that it won’t take a wave election, such as 1994 or 2010, to lose them.
Democrats have a plan to defy all these headwinds: message their way out of it. Biden himself is central to this strategy. He has embarked on a national tour selling the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law. In these speeches, he promotes tangible local projects and the law's funds wherever he goes while also taking shots at Republicans who voted against it or govern red states. Even when Biden remains in Washington, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are two favorite targets.
Other party leaders are trying to distill this message into sharper slogans. “We’re for jobs. They’re for mobs,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the New Yorker who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Washington Post. “We are fixing your country, and they are fixing elections.”
But that means not just talking about what Democrats have done or would like to do for the economy and the country. It also includes generous helpings of talk about the previous president, the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and laws being passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures and signed by GOP governors, especially if the governors might run in 2024.
“This is not your father’s Republican Party by any stretch of the imagination,” Biden said at one of his infrastructure stops. “This is the MAGA party.” He mentioned leaked audio of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the would-be speaker, discussing the attack on the Capitol days after the riot.
All this is the opposite of the Democrats’ approach to the elections two years ago. Then they wanted voters to treat the contest as a referendum on then-President Donald Trump. Republicans tried to frame it as a binary choice between two competing policies, noting that aspects of the Democratic agenda on crime and culture were unpopular.
Top Democratic data operative David Shor concluded that the Republicans had some success in the autopsy of the 2020 election. Democrats actually lost House seats, and left-wing slogans such as “defund the police” moved more conservative nonwhite voters, especially Hispanic voters, into the GOP column. But dissatisfaction with Trump among college-educated white suburbanites shifted enough of these voters toward the Democrats to tip the battleground states and send Biden to the White House.
The challenge for Democrats is that inflation, high gas prices, crime, and the border influx are not strictly messaging problems. Biden’s approval ratings on these topics and the economy more broadly are low. The infrastructure passed with Republican votes, especially in the Senate, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was among the supporters.
Liberals don’t think Biden has done enough. He has passed only one major piece of legislation, the American Rescue Plan, on a partisan basis. Build Back Better, the voting bills, gun control, and immigration reform have all stalled. He has done less than the Congressional Progressive Caucus would like through executive action, and other things he has tried to do have been overturned by the courts.
Independents and Republicans, by contrast, dislike much of what Biden has done or would like to do. They are motivated to turn out. The focus on Trump and Jan. 6 did not produce significant electoral benefits for Democrats in Virginia, which went for Biden by 10 points and was a place where this strategy had a better chance of working than in a number of states and districts that will be pivotal in the midterm election.
“The House is gone,” said a Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The Senate, depending on how the [Republican] primaries shake out and what Trump does, could be saved.” Message sent.