How the Democrats Can Win in 2022

It Will Take Some Things the Democrats Want To Do and Some Things They Don’t Want To Do

Let’s stipulate two things about 2022. One, it will be difficult for the Democrats not to lose control of Congress and two, it is very important that they don’t lose control of Congress.

First, why it will be difficult for the Democrats not to lose either the Senate or the House or both. Start with the historical patterns.  Since 1946 the incumbent President’s party has lost an average of 26 House seats and 2 Senate seats in first term midterm elections. Of course, that’s just an historical pattern and is by no means inevitable. But it does suggest the extent to which the general political dynamics of the upcoming midterm cuts against the Democrats.

Second, early signs from polling are not good. According to Harry Enten:

Democrats are ahead on [the generic Congressiona. Ballot] by about 4 points in the average poll taken since the beginning of Biden's administration….

[T]he types of voters who will be casting a ballot in 2022 will likely be more favorably disposed to the GOP than the overall voting population (or those that cast a ballot in either 2018 or 2020). The reason is that when there is a Democrat in the White House, Republicans have traditionally had a turnout advantage.

study I did back in 2018 revealed that voters who turned out in midterms with Democratic presidents in office were more Republican leaning than registered voters at-large in every midterm since 1978. On average in these midterms, the gap between the registered voter and actual electorate has been about 5 points more Republican among the actual electorate.

Just applying that shift to the polling now, it's not hard to imagine that Republicans may already have an advantage with the voters who will turnout next year.

Third, the margins the Democrats have in both houses of Congress are ridiculously thin. If they lose only one seat, they lose control of the Senate. Depending on the results of special elections, the Democrats could lose as little as four seats and lose control of the House.

So, there are good reasons to think Democrats’ control of Congress will be very hard to defend in 2022. And the stakes of not losing control are very high.

Consider this chart from Kevin Drum:

This concentrates the mind about how ridiculously hard it will be to have a truly transformative period for American public policy and the economy when you only have knife’s edge control of Congress. The American Rescue Plan was relatively easy; everything else will be quite difficult. And it will take a lot more than the American Rescue Plan to truly transform the economy.

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The brutal fact is that, even with reconciliation, the Democrats’ inability to afford any defections places real limits on their ability to accomplish what they want. The same logic applies to Democrats’ quest to eliminate the filibuster either in whole or in part (which is a difficult lift in and of itself). You still can’t afford any defections.

And if the Democrats lose control of Congress in 2022, their ability to accomplish big or even medium size things drops toward zero. This is not a recipe for a transformative period in American society; transformations need some time and a period of true political dominance to succeed.

So, how can the Democrats win in 2022? Or, more accurately, maximize their chances of winning, since there is no way of guaranteeing any particular outcome?

Put very simply, they need to play to their strengths and neutralize their weaknesses so they can win enough elections in tough states and districts. Their strengths are that the economy is reviving, progress against the pandemic has been good, especially vaccinations, and Biden is relatively popular. These are all good ingredients for an incumbent party going into an off-year election.

The American Rescue Plan, an amazingly popular piece of legislation that provides a lot of benefits to a lot of voters, helps all this. The American Jobs Plan is a dicier proposition. It is not as popular and the longer the legislative process is dragged out, the less popular it is likely to get. Therefore, Democrats need to decide which parts of it are most important and that they can sell to their own caucus and move on it as fast as possible.

The same might be said of HR1. It will not pass in its current form, even without the filibuster. Therefore, compromises will be necessary. Besides some basic voting protections, probably the most important part to preserve, particularly in electoral terms, is the redistricting reforms. But that will be difficult.

In short, move fast and fix things. Time is not on your side. This will not make some Democrats happy who want to hold out for the best versions of these bills. But the hard, cold political reality is that that would be foolish. They need successes to twin with the rising economy and create a favorable political environment, particularly in terms of Biden’s approval rating, probably the single best predictor of the Democrats’ chances of success.

Right now, that rating (around 53 percent) is pretty good. At this level, Sean Trende’s Senate model, which has had a good record of success predicts Democrats not only hold the Senate but pick up seats.

But of course Biden’s approval rating may not stay where it is. Republicans will not be idle, even in the face of a rising economy. After all, neither were the Democrats in 2018. Josh Kraushaar points out:

Republicans are betting on the primacy of cultural or social-policy concerns, from the growing wave of migrants at the Southern border to the worsening violent crime in many major cities, regulation of conservative speech by online social-media platforms, and the pervasiveness of so-called “cancel culture” and political correctness. They think safety and identitarian issues will matter more to voters than the pocketbook concerns that historically have driven voting decisions.

There’s good reason to think that will be the case. During the Trump era, culture eclipsed economics in American voting preferences—and it wasn’t even close. Even as the economy roared, Democrats still voted House Republicans out of office in the 2018 midterms because of their antipathy to President Trump. And despite the tumult caused by the pandemic, Trump actually gained ground with nonwhite working-class voters in last year’s presidential election.

Don’t think these issues couldn’t work, just because the Republicans seem a bit unhinged and have not played their cards particularly well so far. Relying on the stupidity of your opponent is always a bad strategy.

So the Democrats need to proactively address their weak points. On three of them that Kraushaar mentions.

1. Combine a fair, humane approach to immigration with a serious approach to border security. The immigration surge at the border is a genuine problem, however much some Democrats want to deny it.

2. To borrow a phrase from Tony Blair who, despite his many drawbacks had his moments, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. In an era of spiking violent crime, the public must believe the Democrats are serious, not only about police reform, but on ensuring public safety.

3. There is a reason Republicans are targeting the excesses of “wokeness”. They’re not popular with ordinary American voters. Democrats should disassociate themselves from these excesses as, for example, the renaming of schools that honored George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in San Francisco now conveniently rescinded or at least suspended by the San Francisco school board. What would be wrong with applauding this decision and asserting that Washington and Lincoln are American heroes who all Americans should embrace? They are part of our common heritage, etc.

None of this is prohibitively hard as policy or politics. But it will take a willingness to make some parts of the Democratic party unhappy. So be it.