Democrats have cause for concern that they’re fading at a bad time ahead of the midterm elections after a summer surge fostered optimism that the party could buck historical trends and retain control of Congress.
A New York Times-Siena College poll released Monday found Republicans held a 49-45 lead over Democrats in the generic ballot roughly one month before November’s elections. That represents a shift from September, when the same poll found Democrats leading Republicans by 1 percentage point.
That poll followed a trend among other surveys that as recently as late September showed Democrats leading Republicans on the generic ballot, only for the lead to shrink or disappear altogether.
To some strategists, the shift in fortunes for Democrats is a matter of timing.
Ethan Winter, an analyst at the progressive group Data for Progress, said the Democrats’ outlook improved over the summer as the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade coincided with falling gas prices and economic reports that indicated inflation was cooling.
“The inflation outlook improved a little bit as gas prices fell but then got worse again, and momentum this cycle has tracked with these sort of baseline economic indicators,” Winter said.
Winter also noted that Democrats began spending on advertisements in key battleground states earlier than Republicans, leading some Senate candidates in particular to open up polling leads that have since dissipated in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as Republicans went on the air with their own ads.
Democrats appeared to turn a midsummer hot streak into real momentum with voters, renewing hope for a strong showing in November. Gas prices in August came down dramatically from the roughly $5 per gallon they were averaging earlier in the summer. Congress passed bipartisan legislation to spur investment in semiconductor computer chips, and Democrats coalesced around a $740 billion bill to fight climate change and lower health care costs.
Multiple summer polls had shown Democrats either even with Republicans or leading. An Aug. 17 Politico-Morning Consult poll showed Democrats leading by 4 percentage points. A poll from the news outlets on Sept. 28 found Democrats still leading by 2 percentage points. And a Sept. 30 poll from Yahoo News and YouGov found Democrats ahead of the GOP by 4 percentage points.
Those polls spurred confidence among Democratic leaders that the party was in position to not just to stave off big Republican gains but perhaps even add to its majority in the House and Senate despite overwhelming historical trends that the president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections.
“I believe that we will hold the House,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Oct. 4 on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” crediting the party’s grassroots organizing, messaging and fundraising.
President Biden voiced optimism about both chambers of Congress two days later at a Democratic National Committee (DNC) event.
“So far, it looks like in the Senate we not only will hold but maybe pick up a couple seats,” Biden said, acknowledging Democrats were “running uphill” because of midterm election history.
“And secondly, the House is … we don’t have that many seats to have to defend — I mean, relative to where we are, but — but, you know, a lot of gerrymandering in the House across the country, because a lot of governors aren’t Democratic governors,” Biden added.
But the political landscape has changed on Democrats in a short time, putting them on the defensive in key areas.
Inflation accelerated for the second straight month in September with consumer prices up at a faster pace than expected. Consumer price index data showed inflation rose 0.4 percent in September and 8.2 percent over the past 12 months.
The average price of gas is $3.89 per gallon, according to AAA data, up roughly 20 cents from one month ago.
Biden lately has argued that inflation will get worse if Republicans win control of Congress, painting Democrats as the party standing up for working people.
He’s been adamant that the U.S. isn’t heading for a recession, but he acknowledged in an interview with CNN last week that there is a possibility of a “very slight recession.”
The New York Times poll released Monday found 44 percent of voters identified the economy as the top issue facing the country, up from 36 percent in July.
Susan MacManus, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida, argued that this close to the election, the economy would have to see a very significant improvement to change voters’ minds.
“Gas prices plus groceries spells big trouble for Democrats,” she said. “It would have to be a dramatic drop for it to change the narrative.”
Focus on other domestic issues, including abortion, student loans and gun violence, may have also cooled down since the summer months, with the economy staying in the forefront of voters’ minds.
Those issues are notably important to young voters, the majority of whom don’t historically show up in midterm elections. MacManus said Democrats should “pivot to try to appeal to younger voters” by talking about student loans in particular.
Biden on Monday announced that the application for the administration’s student loan forgiveness program, which was unveiled in August, is now live and that more than 8 million Americans already had applied during a soft launch period that started on Friday.
The president on Tuesday will participate in an event on reproductive rights. When asked why he is focused on abortion issues now, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that the president has spoken about Republicans’ “assault” on abortion rights “for the past several months.”
Ivan Zapien, a lobbyist and former DNC official, argued that tough polling could motivate the Democratic base with the midterms less than a month away.
“Would you prefer to have polls saying you are going to win? Hell yeah. But on the other hand, if you are looking to motivate your base, [there’s] nothing like a poll saying everything you care about is going to go down the drain,” he said.
Zapien argued that with 22 days until the election, Democrats have planned well.
“Your vote totals are locked in and it’s all execution,” Zapien said. “Dems always knew this was going to be tight and planned accordingly.”
Some officials also believe the outlook is being skewed by Democrats and pundits who believe anything short of retaining or growing the party’s majorities will be a disappointment.
The president’s party has gained seats in a midterm election only twice in the past 80 years: in 1998 during former President Clinton’s second term and in 2002 during former President George W. Bush’s first term the year after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Biden’s low approval ratings, a series of dour inflation reports and losses in some special elections had the makings of a red wave to come in November. But recent polling has indicated Democrats may narrowly keep control of the Senate and lose the House by only a few seats.
“Before this summer, the hard data out of the New Jersey and Virginia governor elections, especially, and the specials before Dobbs indicated that Democrats would suffer a rout at the midterms,” said Winter, the analyst at Data for Progress. “And the polling to date suggests that wave has likely been headed off.”