Who is the worst person to be on a presidential election night? Most would reflexively point to the losing candidate or the campaign professionals who see months or years of work come to nothing. By contrast, I believe it is the swing seat legislator, because they cannot win.
On one hand, losing the presidency blunts the implementation of their legislative priorities, while also empowering those with different agendas. On the other hand, winning the presidency increasingly seems like a death sentence for these officials, due to America’s increasing polarisation.
This is because presidential incumbency gives rise to a cocktail of high turnout for the opposite party’s base, lower turnout among their own party’s base, and backlash among swing voters and independents which invariably leads to losses for their party in the midterms. No president is immune, with electoral juggernauts like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton each suffering major Congressional and state level losses for their party in at least one midterm.
This effect has been overcome before, with notable examples including Democrats marginally gaining in 1998 from backlash to Clinton’s impeachment, Republicans succeeding in 2002 as a result of George W. Bush’s high approval ratings post-9/11, and Republicans gaining Senate seats in 2018 due to a combination of the Senate’s rural bias and the timing of Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial appointment to the Supreme Court.
Is failure set in stone?
As those examples show, there needs to be a change in the “fundamentals” of an election to overcome the baked-in midterm bias in favor of the non-presidential party. For Democrats searching for reasons to be cheerful in November, such a shift looks unlikely. Redistricting may have provided such an opportunity, and between December and February, a string of decisions — including Florida Republicans pursuing a status quo map, New York Democrats aggressively gerrymandering the Empire State, and the Supreme Courts of North Carolina and Ohio throwing out state Republicans’ redistricting plans — gave Democrats some real optimism that the House of Representatives map was moving in their favour.
The last few months have, however, delivered blow after blow to that optimism, with a Voting Rights Act case from Alabama — which nixed any hope of additional majority black seats across southern states — beginning a cascade of negative outcomes for Democrats, from smaller prizes such as Wisconsin and Kansas to critical gluts of seats in New York and Florida.
If not redistricting, then perhaps the economy will help overcome historical precedent. While a strong economy likely saved Republicans from the excesses of the “blue wave” in 2018, America’s hyper-partisanship does not allow for day to day issues to overcome in-built voter affiliation, as they may have done previously. Regardless, these points are rendered moot by the dire state of the economy, the White House’s lack of clear planning for the coming recession, and the responsibility they hold for exacerbating inflation and supply chain issues.
With redistricting having gone awry and the economy far more likely to add to a “red wave”, rather than subtract from it, perhaps foreign policy can save Democrats. Ukraine may yet prove to be a potent political weapon for the Biden administration, particularly if Vladimir Putin begins to directly threaten the west.
Thus far, Americans have been overwhelmingly unified on the issue, which has brought them into agreement with the administration’s efforts to aid Ukraine, but aside from budget objections from libertarian-adjacent Republicans, the issue has not morphed into a national debate and thus, Americans are not prioritising the issue. Furthermore, Biden’s approval ratings, which will heavily impact the Democrats’ performance in November, clearly began to dip in the wake of the controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan and are yet to recover, further denting his foreign policy credentials. Short of a 9/11-level event or the increased likelihood of a nuclear exchange, foreign policy looks unlikely to aid Democrats in the near future.
If not redistricting, the economy, or foreign policy, perhaps using the Clinton playbook to try and appeal to the negative aspects of the Republican Party may prove a viable strategy. After all, we are only a year and a half on from the Capital riot and the demonstrations of dangerous democratic backsliding by Donald Trump, who remains an unpopular figure. In the aftermath of that attack, the majority of the House Republican Conference still voted to decertify legitimate electoral votes from critical swing states.
Since then, Trump has been rehabilitated among the Washington establishment, while Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger were shunned due to their efforts to investigate the former President. Democrats have clearly tried to attach the GOP to Trump over the past few months, but it has barely moved the needle. While GOP primary voters across the country cast votes to decide the party’s future, there has been little demonstrable effect on Biden’s approval ratings, the generic ballot, or the voting behaviour of critical independent voters in swing electorates. While some specific races — such as Pennsylvania’s Senate and Gubernatorial contests — may provide opportunities to successfully run negative campaigns, I think anti-GOP sentiment will mirror the Ukraine invasion in that peoples’ material economic concerns will take precedence, even if there is widespread sympathy for the Democratic position on the issue.
If it’s not going to be redistricting, the economy, foreign policy, or anti-Republican sentiment, then I can only see that the Supreme Court may throw a curveball into the electoral equation. The imminent demise of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey provides the clearest opportunity. Although it seems unlikely that abortion will change partisanship in a meaningful way or become a more pressing issue for swing voters, the implementation of abortion bans in red states may yet inspire a backlash among America’s pro-choice majority. Beyond that, it seems unlikely that a vacancy will arise before November, while the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace the retiring Justice Steven Breyer is insufficiently pressing or impactful to meaningfully influence Democratic turnout.
If it’s not going to be redistricting, the economy, foreign policy, concern toward Republican authoritarianism, or the Supreme Court, I cannot see a way for Democrats to overcome partisanship and the historically iron-clad bias against midterm success for the party occupying the White House. We still have lots of campaigning to go, and things can certainly change, which is why I would encourage readers to keep an eye on abortion laws in red states, the situation in Ukraine, and the internal battle within the Republican Party, as these issues represent Democrats’ best opportunities for electoral recovery in the next six months. Without a seismic change in any of these situations, liberals may wish to resign themselves to a regulation midterm “shellacking”.