The Double-Negative Election

Are voters more upset with Democrats over the economy, or with Republicans over lingering Trumpism?

Voters putting ballots in a box.
Getty; The Atlantic

This has become the double-negative election.

Most Americans consistently say in polls that they believe that President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have mismanaged crime, the border, and, above all, the economy and inflation. But roughly as many Americans say that they view the modern Republican Party as a threat to their rights, their values, or to democracy itself.

Based on Biden’s first two years in office, surveys show that most Americans are reluctant to continue following the policy path he has laid out. But polls also show no enthusiasm for returning to the programs, priorities, and daily chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency. In an NBC national survey released last weekend, half of registered voters said they disagreed with most of what Biden and congressional Democrats want to do, but more than that said the same about congressional Republicans and Trump. About half of all voters said they had little, or no, confidence in either party to improve the economy, according to another recent national survey from CNBC.

It remains likely that two negatives will still yield a positive result for Republicans. Most voters with little faith in both sides may ultimately decide simply to give a chance to the party that’s not in charge now, Jay Campbell, a Democratic pollster who helps conduct the CNBC survey, told me. That would provide a late boost to the GOP, particularly in House races, where the individual candidates are less well known. But even if that dynamic develops, Campbell said, the Democrats’ ability to hold so much of their coalition over concerns about the broader Republican agenda has reduced the odds that the GOP can generate the kind of decisive midterm gains enjoyed by Democrats in 2018 and 2006, or Republicans in 2010 and 1994.

If Republicans make only modest gains this fall, it will be a clear warning that the party, as currently defined by Trump’s imprint, faces a hard ceiling on its potential support. But even a small Republican gain would send Democrats an equal warning that concerns about the GOP’s values and commitment to democracy may not be sufficient to deny them the White House in 2024. “If I was advising the Biden administration, I would say this is the No. 1 priority: Fix the fundamentals,” John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and a co-author of a new book on the 2020 presidential election, The Bitter End, told me. “The biggest priority is inflation, and everything else is secondary.”

By precedent, Democrats should be facing a rout next month. That’s partly because the first midterm election for a new president is almost always tough on his party, but also because most voters express deep pessimism about the country’s current conditions. Despite robust job growth, the combination of inflation, rising interest rates, and tumbling stock markets has generated intense economic dissatisfaction. National surveys, like last week’s CNBC poll, routinely find that on key economic measures, voters prefer Republicans over Democrats by double-digit margins. A September NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that nearly three-fifths of voters say Biden’s policies have weakened the economy, compared with only about one-third who say they have strengthened it.

Given those attitudes, academic models predict that Democrats should lose about 40 to 45 House seats next month, Sides recently noted.

Likewise, Democrats are swimming upstream against the growing tendency of voters to align their selections for the Senate with their assessment of the incumbent president. In 2018, Republicans lost every Senate race in a state where Trump’s approval rating in exit polls stood at 48 percent or less; in 2010, Democrats lost 13 of the 15 Senate races in states where then-President Barack Obama’s approval rating stood at 47 percent or less. This year, Biden’s approval rating does not exceed 45 percent in any of the states hosting the most hotly contested Senate races, and more often stands at only about 40 percent, or even less.

These precedents could ultimately produce Republican gains closer to these historic benchmarks. In polling, the party out of the White House traditionally has gained strength in the final weeks before midterm voting, as most undecided and less-attuned voters break their way.

Bill McInturff, a veteran Republican pollster, told me that dynamic could be compounded this year because independent and less partisan voters remain focused on inflation (rather than the issues of abortion and democracy animating Democrats) and express preponderantly negative views about the economy and Biden’s performance. Campbell agreed that for those reasons, independent voters could move against Democrats, especially in House races. The number of blue-leaning House districts where Democrats are nonetheless spending heavily on defense in the final weeks testifies to that likelihood. Several House-race forecasters have recently upped their projections of likely Republican gains closer to the midterm average since World War II for the party out of the White House, about 26 seats.

But even with all of these formidable headwinds, Democrats have remained highly competitive in polling on national sentiment for the House, and in the key Senate battlegrounds (including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). And although Democrats face unexpectedly difficult challenges in governor’s races in New York and Oregon, they remain ahead or well within reach in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. To be sure, Democrats are not decisive favorites in any of these races (except for governor of Pennsylvania), but despite the gloomy national climate, neither have any of these contests moved out of their reach.

That’s largely because the party has minimized defections and increased engagement from the key groups in its coalition—including young people, college-educated voters, women, and people of color—by focusing more attention on issues where those voters perceive the Trump-era GOP as a threat. Weak or extreme Republican candidates have eased that work in several of these Senate and governor races.

But another factor allowing Democrats to remain competitive is that, for all the doubts Americans are expressing about their performance, there is no evidence of rising confidence in Republicans.

For instance, the latest national NBC survey, conducted by the bipartisan team of Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, found that 48 percent of voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who promised to continue Biden’s policies. That sounds ominous for Democrats, but voters were slightly more negative about a candidate who promised to pursue Trump’s policies (50 percent less likely). Only about one-third of independents said they preferred a candidate who would continue the policies of either Biden or Trump. All of that tracks with the survey’s other finding that although half of voters said they disagreed with most of what Biden and the Democrats are trying to do, even more said they mostly disagreed with the agenda of congressional Republicans (53 percent) and Trump (56 percent).

Other polls have also found this double-barreled skepticism. The latest CNBC poll (also conducted by the Hart Research/Public Opinion Strategies team) found the two parties facing almost identically bleak verdicts on their ability to improve the economy: Only a little more than one-fifth of voters expressed much confidence in each party, while more than three-fourths expressed little or none.

When a Yahoo/YouGov America poll recently asked whether each party was focusing on the right issues, only about 30 percent of voters in each case said yes, and about half said no. Only about one-fourth of women said Republicans have the right priorities; only about one-fourth of men said Democrats have the right priorities. The capstone on all of these attitudes is the consistent finding that most Americans (an identical 57 percent in the Yahoo/You Gov survey) don’t want either Biden or Trump to run again in 2024.

In baseball, they say a tie goes to the runner. The political analogue might be that equally negative assessments of the two parties are likely to break in favor of the side out of power. Campbell points out that while a striking 81 percent of independents say they have little or no confidence in Republicans to improve the economy, that number rises to 90 percent about Democrats. In the NBC survey, voters who said they mostly disagreed with both Biden’s and Trump’s policy agenda preferred Republicans to control Congress by a margin of three to one, according to detailed results provided by McInturff.

Democrats seem acutely, though perhaps belatedly, aware of these challenges. They now warn that Republicans, if given control of one or both congressional chambers, would threaten Medicare and Social Security, most pointedly by demanding cuts in return for raising the federal debt ceiling next year. But it’s not clear that those arguments can break through the lived reality of higher prices for gas and groceries squeezing so many families. “Inflation, rising gas prices, interest rates—those are things people feel every day,” Tony Fabrizio, the lead pollster for Trump in 2020, told me recently. “There is no TV commercial that is going to change what they feel when they go to the grocery store or the gas station.”

The challenge those daily realities pose to Democrats is not unique: As the political analyst John Halpin recently noted, “inflation is a political wrecking ball for incumbent governments” across the Western world (as demonstrated by England’s recent chaos and the election of right-wing governments in Sweden and Italy). No democratically elected government may enjoy much security until more people in its country feel secure about their own finances. For Democrats, the risk of an unexpectedly bad outcome next month seems greater than the possibility of an unexpectedly good one.

Republican gains this fall would only extend a core dynamic of modern American politics: the inability of either party to establish a durable advantage over the other. If Democrats lose one or both congressional chambers, it will mark the fifth consecutive time that a president who went into a midterm election with unified control of government has lost it. The prospect of very tight races next month in almost all of the same states that decided the 2020 presidential election underscores the likelihood that the 2024 race for the White House will again divide the country closely and bitterly.

Yet the undertow threatening Democrats now previews the difficulty they will face in two years if economic conditions don’t improve. In presidential races, political scientists say voters start to harden their verdicts on the economy about a year before Election Day. That means Biden is running out of time to tame inflation, especially if, as most economists expect, doing so will require at least a modest recession. Even amid widespread anxiety about both inflation and recession, Democrats remain competitive this fall by highlighting doubts about Republicans, particularly among the voters in their own coalition. But that cannot be an experiment any Democrat would look forward to repeating in 2024.