Why Republicans are winning with less than a week to go: The basics

Why Republicans are winning with less than a week to go: The basics


The Democrats’ hope of retaining control of at least one chamber of Congress comes down to Republicans blowing it. For a while, it looked pretty plausible because of the unpopularity of the GOP brand as a whole and the Republican candidates in certain races.

But now that we’re less than a week away from Election Day, the momentum is clearly on the Republican side, and the possibility of a Republican defeat has increased.

Why? We’re dealing with a deeply disaffected electorate, which almost always means voters punish the president’s party.

Look at a Gallup poll published on Tuesday. Only 17% of Americans say they are satisfied with the direction the country is going. That’s the worst of any midterm since at least 1982, when Gallup first measured midterm satisfaction.

Importantly, this satisfaction with the direction of the country is highly correlated with mid-term outcomes in the House. In the midterms, when more Americans are dissatisfied than satisfied with the direction of the country, the party holding the White House lost an average of 33 seats. That jumps to 46 seats in the first presidential term.

If we look instead at total seats, the party holding the White House ends up with 186 seats on average when more Americans are dissatisfied than satisfied in a president’s first term. That would be a loss of over 35 seats for Democrats in the 2022 midterms. Never has a president’s party finished with more than 204 seats when more Americans were dissatisfied than satisfied.

Not surprisingly, the picture is very different in the three midterms when more Americans were satisfied. Those three elections (1986, 1998 and 2002) actually achieved an average of two parliamentary seats for the presidential party.

I should emphasize that these are generally small sample sizes. For example, there are only 10 terms in total during which Gallup measured the satisfaction levels of the electorate. It’s possible that this year will be different in some fundamental way that we don’t yet understand.

Yet the current low approval ratings of Congress suggest something similar. Congressional approval is usually low, but not this low. In the Gallup poll, it was only 21%. That’s tied for the second-worst halftime score since 1974.

The other first midterms in which congressional approval ratings were below 25%: 1994, 2010, and 2018. All saw losses of at least 40 seats for the president’s party, which also controlled Congress at the time.

Perhaps the most important factor in understanding why Republicans have momentum, however, is the president’s approval rating. I noticed last week that the big question going into the midterms was whether Democrats could surpass President Joe Biden’s approval ratings.

His approval rating in a Gallup poll was 40%, the second-worst for a midterm incumbent since 1974. It’s the worst for a first-term incumbent. Biden’s disapproval rating was 56% in the poll.

No first-term president whose approval rating was below his midterm disapproval rating since 1974 has seen his party finish with more than 200 seats in the House.

Ours CNN/SSRS poll As of Wednesday morning, Biden’s approval rating was 42% among likely voters and 41% among all adults and registered voters. His disapproval is 58% or 59% on all these measures.

That’s not much different from CNN’s poll of Biden’s approval ratings over the past six months.

What has changed is the generic congressional ballot, which puts Republicans ahead of Democrats for the first time since May. They rose 51% to 47% among likely voters in a new CNN survey.

Why did the generic ballot change even though Biden’s approval rating barely budged?

Republicans are winning a significantly higher share of those who disapprove of Biden’s job performance. In our latest poll, their lead among this group is 74 points on the generic ballot.

Last summer, right around the time Roe v. Wade was overturned, Republicans were more than 51 points in this group. That 23-point jump in support for Republicans among those who disapprove of Biden mirrors a trend seen in Monmouth University polls.

It’s arguably the clearest sign yet that voters are drifting away from Democrats — where the fundamentals suggest they would be.

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