Polls after polls show a midterm paradox for this year’s elections, as the generic congressional ballot polls show a tight race between Democrats and Republicans despite President Biden facing the worst approval numbers in recent presidential history. While history still favors the GOP, these polls suggest that the 2022 elections are far from a settled matter.
The FiveThirtyEight poll aggregator tracking the generic Congressional ballot shows that Republicans hold the slightest of advantages over Democrats, as 44.1% of Americans say they would want to see the GOP control the legislative branch, just 0.5 points ahead of the 43.6% of voters who would prefer the Democratic Party to control Congress.
The close gap between the GOP and the Democrats stands in stark contrast to the American public’s evaluation of the job performance of Joe Biden, who is deep underwater and is now more unpopular than Trump ever was during his four years in office as just a meager 38.4% of voters approve of his job performance so far.
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These surveys showing a tight race between Democrats and Republicans should be good news for Democrats who fear that Biden’s unprecedented unpopularity might sink their chances to keep both houses of Congress in this year’s congressional elections. It also rings some alarm bells in the war rooms of Republican candidates who hope Biden’s deeply unpopular presidency might automatically translate into a red wave this November.
In the midterm paradox, Biden has grown more unpopular while Democrats have gained in the polls
Media outlets and political analysts tend to use two types of polls a lot to evaluate each party’s chances to win Congress: presidential approval ratings and the generic congressional ballot. As their names indicate, the former evaluates the public’s perceptions of the President’s job performance. At the same time, the latter asks respondents which party they would rather see controlling Congress after the midterm elections.
Usually, the presidential approval rating is used as an indicator of the public mood towards the party in government. If the president is heavily unpopular, it is fair to assume that his party will have a more challenging job convincing voters to elect them in the midterms. The logic follows then since most voters intensely dislike Biden, the Democrats’ numbers in the polls would follow suit.
There is historical evidence to back this, as every president since 1992 had suffered a significant popular vote defeat when they were underwater in at least one of their midterms. Democrats lost the 1994 and 2010 midterms while their presidents were unpopular, and Republicans did the same during the 2006 and 2018 midterms.
Hence it is paradoxical (at least on the surface) that while Biden’s fledgling approval ratings have taken a deep nosedive over the last few weeks, Democrats’ numbers in the generic congressional ballot have not only not gone to the same depths as Biden’s but have increased. Democrats went from losing the generic ballot by almost three points in June to less than one point in July, while Biden suffered a 2-3 point decline in his approval ratings.
These numbers imply that while voters are highly critical of the President’s job performance, this does not necessarily mean they will vote for the Republican party in November. However, not everything is bad news for the GOP.
This election is still for the Republicans to lose
While the difference between the generic ballot and Biden’s approval rating might seem paradoxical, it is not the first time that both numbers have disagreed. In 2014, President Obama was polling at an anemic 42% approval rating in July. Yet, the Democrats held a 1-2 point advantage over the GOP in the generic ballot. This trend would be the common characteristic of that year’s campaign as, on average, Democrats polled far better than President Obama.
This divergence did not prevent Republicans from decisively winning the election and taking control of both Houses of Congress. Hence, good polling numbers for Democrats in July do not mean they will have a good result in November.
Furthermore, as noted in this article by FiveThirtyEight, the trend over the last elections is that the polling numbers for the party in power will gradually get worst as the election nears, which is precisely what happened in 2010 when Democrats went from having a statistical tie in the July generic ballot to trail Republicans by nine points in late October.
Moreover, the closer we get to the election, the clearer will be which side is more motivated to go to the polls, as surveys will shift from polling registered to likely voters. Suppose the Republican party manages to get their base to be more enthusiastic than Democrats and convince voters who dislike Biden to vote Republican. In that case, the predictions of a red wave might very well be accurate.
While Republicans are still favored to win at least the House of Representatives back in November, the latest poll numbers show that Biden’s unpopularity does not mean the election is already over. Even if polls are wrong (again), it is still the task of the GOP to convince enough Americans to not only disapprove of Biden but vote Republican.