Why This Election Is So Weird

Instead of offering voters contrasting solutions to the same problems, the two parties are highlighting entirely different issues.

A photograph of an American voting
Drew Angerer / Getty

The two major factors shaping the 2022 midterm elections collided in tumultuous fashion on Tuesday morning.

First came the government report that inflation last month had increased faster than economists had expected or President Joe Biden had hoped. The announcement triggered a sharp fall in the stock market, the worst day on Wall Street in two years.

That same afternoon, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced legislation that would impose a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The inflation report captured this year’s most powerful tailwind for Republicans: widespread dissatisfaction with Biden’s management of the economy. Graham’s announcement captured this year’s strongest Democratic tailwind: widespread unease about abortion rights.

The shift in the campaign debate away from Biden’s management of the economy and toward the GOP’s priorities on abortion and other issues has been the principal factor improving Democratic prospects since earlier this summer. But the unexpectedly pessimistic inflation report—which showed soaring grocery and housing bills overshadowing a steady decline in gasoline prices—was a pointed reminder that the economy remains a formidable threat to Democrats in November.

These two events also underscored how, to an extremely unusual degree, the parties are talking past each other. As the Democratic pollster Molly Murphy told me, 2022 is not an election year when most Americans “agree on what the top priorities [for the country] are” and debate “different solutions” from the two major parties.

Instead, surveys show that Republican voters stress inflation, the overall condition of the economy, crime, and immigration. For Democratic voters, the top priorities are abortion rights, the threats to democracy created by former President Donald Trump and his movement, gun control, climate change, and health care.

Few questions may shape the November results as much as whether the issues Democrats are stressing continue to motivate roughly as many voters as Republicans’ preferred issues. Gene Ulm, a Republican pollster, told me he believes that pocketbook strains will ultimately prove decisive for most voters, particularly those without a college degree. Those voters, he added, are basically saying, “‘I am worried about putting food on the table, and you are talking to me about all this other crap.’"

Yet there is no question that Democratic candidates are performing far above the consistently bleak public assessments of the economy, and especially Biden’s management of it. In one sense, that’s not shocking: Over the past few decades, voters’ economic assessments have become less predictive of election results, in large part because those judgments are themselves so heavily shaped by partisanship. But even in light of that trend, the disconnect between voters’ views on Biden’s economic management and their willingness to support Democratic candidates for the House and Senate remains striking.

Biden has positive trends in the economy to celebrate, particularly robust job growth. He’s been cutting ribbons at a steady procession of infrastructure projects and manufacturing-plant openings (like last week’s groundbreaking for an Intel semiconductor facility in Ohio) tied to the tax incentives and direct spending from the infrastructure, climate, and semiconductor bills that he’s signed. Those economic milestones—yesterday, for instance, the White House touted $85 billion in new private investments for electric-vehicle production since Biden took office—will likely be a political asset for him in 2024, especially in the pivotal states across the industrial Midwest. But those accomplishments won’t necessarily sway voters this November, and in any case, all of these favorable trends for now are being overshadowed in most households by the persistent pain of higher prices on consumer goods.

Even before this week’s inflation report, voters gave Biden an extremely negative grade for his economic performance. In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Institute poll released last week, just 34 percent of those surveyed said that his actions have helped the economy, while 57 percent said they have hurt it. Not surprisingly, that discontent was most intense among Republicans and also among white voters without a college degree (a stunning 76 percent of whom said Biden’s actions had hurt the economy.) But that belief was also shared by 63 percent of independents, 55 percent of Generation Z and Millennial voters, 47 percent of nonwhite voters, and even 16 percent of people who voted for him in 2020.

However, the share in each of these groups that gave Biden an overall positive mark on his job performance was consistently five to nine percentage points higher than those who believed his actions had helped the economy. And the share in each group that said they intend to support House Democrats in the November election was higher still—enough to give Democrats a narrow lead on that crucial question. Independents, for example, were split evenly on which party they intend to support in November, even though they were negative on Biden’s economic performance by more than two to one.

This stark pattern points to another consequential anomaly in the 2022 polling so far. One of the most powerful modern trends in congressional races is a correlation between voters’ attitudes toward the president and their willingness to vote for candidates from his party. Virtually all voters who “strongly disapprove” of a president have voted against his party’s candidates in recent House and Senate elections. In 2018, two-thirds of voters who even “somewhat disapproved” of Trump voted for Democratic House candidates, according to exit polls. In 2010, two-thirds of voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Barack Obama likewise voted for Republican candidates.

By contrast, in the Marist survey, and another recent national poll by the Pew Research Center, Democrats led slightly among those who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden—a stunning result.

Murphy told me this disconnect has been evident since the outset of Biden’s presidency: Even when his approval numbers were high during his first months, she said of her polling, that didn’t lift other Democratic candidates, so she’s not entirely surprised that his decline hasn’t tugged them down. But Murphy, like others in the party, believes that concerns about Republicans—centered on their abortion-restriction efforts, their nomination of extremist and election-denying candidates, and their unflagging defense of Trump—also explain why Democratic candidates are consistently running ahead of Biden’s approval rating.

“It should have been pretty easy for [Republicans] to put these races away, given how concerned voters are about the economy and inflation,” Murphy told me. Now, she said, “I do think they are having to go back to the drawing board.”

Graham’s abortion legislation is certain to benefit Democratic efforts to shift voter focus from what Biden has done to what Republicans might do if returned to power. In a press conference, Graham flatly declared, “If we take back the House and Senate, I’ll assure you we’ll have a vote on our bill.” Although many Republican senators and candidates quickly distanced themselves from his proposal, his pledge meant that every Democratic Senate candidate can plausibly argue that creating a GOP majority in the chamber will ensure a congressional vote on a national abortion ban.

Dan Sena, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who now consults for many party House candidates, told me that the abortion fight’s biggest impact will be to inspire higher turnout from liberal-leaning and young voters. Abortion, he said, “has energized a group of people that we saw in 2018 and we saw in 2020 that traditionally don’t participate in midterm elections and are much more motivated by the cultural fight.”

Yet few Democrats believe that the political threat from inflation and general unease about the economy is behind them in this election cycle. In focus groups, Ulm, the GOP pollster, told me, “We hear more gripes about groceries than anything.” Sena largely agrees: “Jobs and paychecks still matter, pal,” he said.

One Democratic pollster, who asked not to be identified while discussing private campaign research, told me that inflation and crime—the principal issues Republicans are stressing on the campaign trail—remain tangible and immediate concerns in swing districts. In House district polling, the pollster said, the firm often asks voters whether they worry more that Democratic policies are fueling inflation and crime or that Republicans are too extreme on abortion and too soft on the January 6 insurrection. On balance, the pollster told me, most respondents in swing districts say they worry more about Democratic policies.

Yes, the pollster said, the Supreme Court abortion decision, the revelations about Trump from the House January 6 committee hearings, and the Justice Department’s investigation into his stockpiling of classified documents have energized and awakened Democratic voters. But, the pollster added, it’s not as if everyone has decided that abortion and January 6 are more important than crime and inflation.

Strategists and pollsters on both sides believe that these diverging agendas could intensify one of the most powerful trends in modern American politics: the class inversion in which Democrats are running stronger among white voters with college degrees and Republicans are gaining ground among white voters without them, as well as among blue-collar Latino voters.

In white-collar America, inflation may be more of an inconvenience than an existential threat, which provides space for voters to prioritize their values on issues such as abortion or Trump’s threat to democracy. In blue-collar America, where inflation often presents more difficult daily choices and sacrifices, abortion and the fate of democracy may be less salient, even among those who agree with Democrats on those issues. In the Marist poll, twice as many white voters without a college degree picked inflation over abortion as their top concern in November, while slightly more college-educated white voters picked abortion than inflation.

Even with inflation at its highest level in 40 years, Republicans appear unlikely to significantly cut into such key Democratic constituencies as college-educated white voters, young people, and residents of large metropolitan areas. And even such a seismic shock as the Supreme Court abortion decision may not significantly loosen the Republican hold on white women without a college education. Although there may be some movement around the edges (inflation, for instance, could help Republicans gain among Latino voters), the biggest story of 2022 may be how closely it follows the lines of geographic and demographic polarization that the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections have engraved.

As in those contests, a handful of competitive swing states (Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania) will tip the precarious national balance of power between red and blue areas that now behave more like separate nations than different sections. The November elections seem likely to demonstrate again that the U.S. remains locked in a struggle between two coalitions that hold utterly antithetical visions of America’s future—yet remain almost equal in size.