Who is Going to Win the Midterms?
A deep dive without scuba gear, a.k.a., expert knowledge.
We are officially 18 days out from the midterm elections, which means we have to do some sort of prediction. And that also means we have to rely on polls again. The night is dark and full of terrors.
The 2022 midterms are a little unique because they are (as their name implies) a test of both political gravity and the resistance to it. If you have been reading the Jackal since January of 2021, you will have heard me say the same thing over and over again: When the midterms roll around in November of 2022, Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to get knocked on their asses.
The reason for that is political gravity: The incumbent Party always gets shellacked in the midterms, and there is often little they can do about it. We have two semi-recent counters to this argument: George W. Bush acing his midterms in 2002, and Bill Clinton doing the same in 1998. However, both instances were pretty significant anomalies and the political landscape has completely changed since then.
So, up until this summer, it really looked like gravity was taking hold and Democrats were likely to collapse in the House and probably lose control of the Senate. Then, the resistance to that gravity popped up after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. After that happened, polls started to show a shift toward Democrats and they even won some special elections. Most notably, a constitutional amendment to completely ban abortion in Kansas was overwhelmingly struck down following a surge of women registering to vote. Around August, alarm bells were starting to ring for Republicans.
But things have changed over the past two months. Polls have now shifted back in Republicans’ favor, and some of good news we got on inflation over the summer has been negated by recent bad news on inflation. The Biden Administration had a very good August and passed lots of legislation, but it is increasingly rare for voters to say, “Thank you,” during the midterms when they are busy with other things (like grocery bills). That is starting to show up in recent polls, which are showing Republicans with anywhere from a 3-point to 6-point advantage. The average in the Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” shows the GOP with about a 3-point advantage, with basically every recent poll except one showing them ahead. FiveThirtyEight is less bullish on the GOP (and some would say less partisan than Real Clear Politics), but the GOP has a lead nonetheless:
If you look at that graph, you can actually see where the Democrats took the lead in the generic ballot over the summer. In the responses to those polls, abortion tended to be the second-most important thing voters were concerned about, but the number one issue was always inflation. And despite some indication that the long-term outlook is improving, inflation is still high and that seems to be driving people to the GOP.
But can we trust the polls?
You might be a Democrat and you’re thinking, “0.3 points is not all that much, and who trusts the polls anymore anyway?” There are two significant rebuttals to that:
The House map is (currently) gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor. To win the House, Dems probably have to beat the GOP by about 3 points nationally, whereas 0.3 points would probably be enough for Republicans to take control. Thems the breaks.
It is true that no one trusts the polls anymore, but that is because they tend to significantly undercount Republican support.
In a really good piece by Nate Cohn, he highlights just how rare it is for people respond to polls anymore, and the people who do tend to be higher educated. That is why polls can often over-count Democrats: As the Party alignment has shifted post-Trump, Democrats have secured a large portion of the educated vote. This has advantages (like they are more likely to vote in midterm elections), but it also means a poll will give you a sample of more educated people than will be reflected in the electorate. G. Elliott Morris likewise shows us that since 1998, polls have tended to overestimate Democrats by about 1.1 points:
Here is the silver lining for you if you’re a Democrat: The last time polls overestimated Republicans was the last time we had a midterm election: 2018. But one of the lessons of midterm turnout is that the incumbent’s Party tends to get comfortable and stay home, whereas the opposition is fired up and ready to vote. That was certainly the case with Trump.
One of the reasons abortion became a significant factor in the midterms is that it activated a lot of Democratic voters who were probably going to stay home. All in all, it may prevent a bonafide GOP wave, but really all that’s needed to shift control is a slight ripple (and Republicans could get more than that still).
Do Democrats have a chance?
I would be remiss if I didn’t present an argument from the other side, which is that Democrats may hold on to control of Congress and resist political gravity. Some pollsters have pointed out that support for Democrats hasn’t really fallen off, it’s more that Republicans are finally consolidating their support. Others say that pollsters have modeled for a different electorate than who is actually going to turn out next month.
Coming at this as someone who was previously fascinated by the science of polling and is now a full-blown skeptic, I will end with this: When all the other indicators show that this could be a “toss-up” election, go with political gravity. The incumbent Party always loses seats in the midterms, and it is unlikely that the Democrats avoid that in 2022.
This isn’t a piece as much as it is a tweet, but it’s related to this topic:1. The kneejerk response to this from right-wingers is that the blue cities in Oklahoma are to blame for the state's high murder rate. As it happens, OKC and Tulsa both have GOP, not Dem, mayors. But that aside, OK's cities are not the reason its murder rate is as high as it is.Oklahoma's homicide rate is 2x the homicide rates in NY or CT or NJ. It's 50% higher than the homicide rate in NYC! OK's violent-crime rate is 25% higher than NYS, 5% higher than CA's. Yet people at the debate laughed as if Hofmeister's unquestionably true statement were absurd.James Surowiecki @JamesSurowiecki
Crime is a significant issue in the midterms, but a really wild thing to me is that Republican-led States have higher crime rates than Democrat-led States. The perception of the GOP as a “law and order” Party really just seems to be that: A perception.
You may have heard a lot of stories about kids requesting that adults put litter-boxes in classrooms because they identify as furries (they dress up as animals). There are a lot of reasons this doesn’t make sense, but Tim Miller debunks it here.
Trump overcharged the Secret Service to line his own pockets. Gross.
Jonathan Chait highlights John Durham’s latest failure (which I did not even write about but correctly predicted!).
Nate Silver is telling his friends the Senate is a toss-up.
See everyone next week!