The choice for voters in the 2022 campaign has sharpened to the point where it can be condensed to a single phrase: Your money or your rights?
Most voters continue to express strikingly negative views on President Joe Biden’s management of the economy, and for that matter, his handling of crime and the border. Traditionally the president’s party has suffered significant losses in midterm elections when voters hold such negative views about conditions in the country and his response to them.
But Democrats remain highly competitive this year largely because so many voters also view the Donald Trump-era Republicans as a threat to their rights (particularly on abortion), values and democracy itself. The critical question for November may be whether those considerations can allow Democratic candidates to continue levitating above the negative assessments of the economy and Biden’s performance.
“In large part that’s why this election is super weird,” says Bryan Bennett, lead pollster for Navigator, a Democratic polling consortium. “People are having to make this trade-off between the immediate economic concerns [where]…they might blame the incumbent party in power. But at the same time, they know that same incumbent party is the one that is going to protect that fundamental human right” on abortion.
The push and pull between these competing priorities have been vividly displayed over the past week during the first flurry of general election Senate debates in states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona. During last week’s televised Arizona encounter, for instance, Republican challenger Blake Masters came out of the gate very strong and kept Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly on the defensive by relentlessly linking him to Biden while the conversation initially focused on inflation and border security. But as the discussion shifted toward abortion and election integrity, Kelly clearly regained the momentum, as Masters struggled to explain his support during the GOP primary for a near total ban on abortion and his embrace of Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in 2020.
Ordinarily, assessments of the president’s performance have been the single fixed point around which midterm campaigns revolve. That’s an ominous precedent for Democrats. Even though Biden’s approval rating has improved since the spring, he remains stuck at 45% or below in most national polls. His numbers are even lower on the key issues Republicans are stressing on the campaign trail: Biden faced a disapproval rating of 66% on inflation, 63% on immigration, and 61% on crime in a recent national Monmouth University survey. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released in September showed that nearly three-fifths of voters believed Biden’s choices had hurt the economy, while only a little over one-third believed his actions had strengthened it.
What’s more, Biden’s position is consistently weak across the battleground states that will decide control of the Senate. CNN polls in Arizona and Nevada last week showed just 41% of likely voters in each approving of his performance. Other recent surveys have put his approval at a comparable 39% in Georgia and Wisconsin and only slightly better (around 44-45%) in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
There are not many recent precedents for Senate candidates from the president’s party winning races in states where his approval rating has fallen that low. In 2018, Republicans lost all 10 Senate races in states where Trump’s approval rating stood at 48% or less, according to exit polls. In the 2010 Republican sweep, Democrats lost 13 of the 15 Senate races in states where exit polls placed Barack Obama’s approval rating at 47% of less; only Harry Reid in Nevada (where Obama stood at 46%) and Joe Manchin in West Virginia (who, rather incredibly, carried a state where just 30% of voters approved of Obama’s performance) surmounted that tide. In 2006, Republicans lost 19 of the 20 Senate races in states where exit polls put George W. Bush’s approval at 45% or less (then-Senator Olympia Snowe in Maine was the sole exception.)
Yet the same surveys in the past few weeks that showed Biden scuffling in those six key states also showed the Democratic candidates leading in four of them, trailing only in Nevada and Wisconsin – and even there just narrowly. Across those states, Democrats generally are winning an unusually high percentage of voters who say they disapprove of Biden. CNN’s Arizona survey, for instance, showed Kelly winning 19% of voters who disapproved of Biden (slightly more than Reid managed among Obama disapprovers in 2010) and even Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, though narrowly trailing overall, capturing 13% of them. By contrast, no Republican Senate candidate in a competitive race won more than 8% of voters who disapproved of Trump during 2018, exit polls found.
Polls measuring sentiment of House races also show Democrats attracting an unusually large sliver of voters who disapprove of Biden. Some recent surveys have found Democrats even leading slightly among voters who say they “somewhat” (as opposed to “strongly”) disapprove of Biden’s performance – a remarkable reversal from 2018 and 2010 when the president’s party lost about two-thirds of voters who “somewhat” disapproved of his performance, according to exit polls.
These results partly reflect the sheer intractability of our modern political divisions, which leaves fewer voters open to shifting allegiance no matter how unhappy they are with current conditions. Particularly in Senate races, including the contests in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, Republicans have also been hurt by nominating Trump-aligned candidates that many voters view as unqualified, extreme or both.
But another critical factor is that many of the voter groups that Democrats most rely upon are relatively less focused on the issues where public concerns about Biden’s performance are greatest, and more focused on issues where anxieties are greatest about the intentions of Republicans. “The blue team cares about abortion and democracy and the red team cares about crime and immigration and inflation,” says Whit Ayres, a long-time GOP pollster. “And there’s obviously a little overlap, particularly on the inflation front. But we have become so polarized that the two different teams care about different things and are motivated by different things.”
The national NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released last week offered the latest snapshot of this divergence. Asked what issue they considered most important in 2022, Republicans overwhelmingly chose inflation (52%) and immigration (18%). A comparable share of Democrats picked preserving democracy (32%), abortion (21%) and health care (15%). Independents split exactly in half between the priorities of the two parties: inflation and immigration on the one side, and democracy, abortion and health care on the other. Voters with at least a four-year college degree leaned relatively more toward democracy and abortion; those without degrees (including Latinos) tended to stress inflation. (This survey did not include crime as an option, but it too has usually provoked the most concern from Republicans and non-college educated voters.)
According to detailed results provided by Marist, voters who focused primarily on inflation gave Republicans about two-thirds of their votes for Congress, as did almost three-fifths of those who prioritized immigration. But Democrats attracted about three-fourths of those who emphasized abortion or health care, and over three-fifths of those focused on preserving democracy.
Given these disparities, Democrats everywhere are stressing issues relating to rights and values, particularly abortion, but also warning about the threat to democracy posed by Trump and his movement. Since June, as CNN recently reported, Democratic candidates have spent over $130 million on abortion-themed ads, vastly more than Republicans.
But some operatives in both parties see signs that Democrats’ ability to shift voters around the issues of abortion, and rights more broadly, may have peaked. Several recent surveys, including the national Monmouth poll, have found that when voters were asked directly, most said they were more concerned about kitchen table economic issues than questions of fundamental rights and protecting democracy. Among the voters who prioritized core economic concerns, two-thirds preferred Republicans for Congress, according to detailed results provided by Monmouth.
Republican consultant John Brabender says that over the summer voters dismayed about the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade decided “let’s get the pitchforks and get those people for what they’re doing on abortion.” More recently, though, he argues, “they realized they couldn’t afford to get the gas to get there.” That’s shifted the relative priority on the issue for many voters, he maintains: “Is there some intensity on abortion? Sure. But it’s not what it was weeks ago. It’s putting pressure on some of these Democratic candidates because for a long time all they had to say is ‘I’m with you on abortion.’”
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, vice president and chief strategy officer of Way to Win, a Democratic group that focuses on campaigns and candidates of color, says that stressing the risk to abortion rights still can increase turnout among liberal-leaning groups, like young single women, who might otherwise sit out a midterm election. But she largely agrees that most of the persuadable voters who might move to Democrats around the abortion issue have already done so and that the party during the campaign’s final stretch must ensure it has a competitive message on the economy and other daily concerns. “The reality is everybody is always going to be focused on the things that are affecting their everyday life,” she says. “I think it’s a false choice to be thinking about: is it the economy or is it abortion?”
On the economy, the border and crime, the GOP is bombarding Democrats with the charge that excessively liberal policies under Biden have sent the country spiraling in the wrong direction. It’s the latest iteration of the straightforward “time-for-a-change” message that opposition parties have effectively employed throughout American history at moments of widespread public discontent. Brabender predicts that by Election Day, very few individual Democrats will escape the undertow of the negative overall public perceptions about their party’s performance, particularly over inflation. “On the economy…I think there are certain generic considerations that are baked into the cake when people vote,” he says.
Democrats are deploying an array of defenses against the GOP case that Biden has mismanaged the economy.
In the long run, the most important of these may be the argument that the incentives for domestic production embedded in the trio of central Biden legislative accomplishments – the bills to rebuild infrastructure, promote semiconductor manufacturing and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy – will produce a boom in US employment, particularly in manufacturing jobs that don’t require a college degree.
But those plant openings are mostly still in the future and only a few Democrats (such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Arizona Sen. Kelly, and Ohio Senate candidate Tim Ryan) are emphasizing those possibilities this year.
More commonly, Democrats are stressing legislation the party has passed that offers families some relief on specific costs, especially the provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says that highlighting such specific initiatives can allow individual candidates to overcome the negative overall judgment on Biden’s economic management. His main concern is that too many Democrats are sublimating any economic message while focusing preponderantly on abortion.
In a strategy memo to be released this week and shared with CNN, the Way to Win group argues that Democrats should rebut the Republican attacks by painting the broader GOP agenda as an extension of the assault on individual freedom and autonomy evident in the drive to restrict abortion. Democrats, the group writes, must “tie the salience of Roe being overturned to other issues at stake that are important to voters” and make the case that “Republicans have no plan to lower prices, but do have a plan to end Social Security and Medicare and raise taxes on millions of lower and middle-income Americans.”
Melissa Morales, founder of Somos Votantes, a group that mobilizes Latinos for Democratic candidates, says that one saving grace for her party is that Republicans haven’t convinced voters they have specific answers on the economy either. “The concrete is not set yet,” she said recently after a day of door-to-door canvassing in Phoenix. “There is still a way to move people, connect with people.” Like Way to Win, her group stresses a message that tries to bridge the kitchen tables/values divide: Democrats are committed to providing people opportunities to help them meet their obligation to their families, while Republicans are focused on taking away rights.
Piece by piece with these arguments – the coming manufacturing boom, the cost-saving provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, the case that they are offering struggling families opportunities to better their condition – Democrats are trying to build a sea wall against the swelling currents of economic discontent. But the campaign’s final weeks will measure whether that current reaches a level that breaches all of the party’s defenses.
More than a few Democratic strategists have recently told me they wish the election could have been held earlier this summer, when concerns about abortion rights and Trump’s threat to democracy (in the aftermath of the televised House January 6, 2021, Committee hearings) were at a peak. Enough voters now still appear focused on values, rather than economic issues, to hold down any potential GOP gains next month to a level well below Republicans’ initial hopes. But with gas prices rising again, the stock market falling, and any summertime gains in Biden’s approval rating now seemingly stalled, Democrats can’t be sure that will remain true four weeks from today.