Election watch 2022: 400 days to go

The 2022 House and Senate elections are 400 days from today. Are the results next November already baked in?

While that question may seem ludicrous to some, elections are shaped by fundamental forces. For one, the party in the White House usually underperforms during midterms. As our friends at FiveThirtyEight recently estimated, even when the incumbent party leads the generic ballot in off-year September, they will ultimately underperform by 9.3 points the following November.

In addition, as politics becomes increasingly polarized and nationalized, people consistently vote for candidates that share their partisan identity. This makes national elections closer — and also more sensitive to structural developments that favor one party over the other. And Republicans are the likely beneficiaries of those developments this cycle, particularly when it comes to redistricting. As David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report has suggested, this alone could be enough to give the Republicans control in the House.

So the fundamentals seem to favor Republicans this cycle. But the pollsters’ crystal balls are cloudier than usual these days, and a lot can happen in the next 400 days. The controversies of the past couple of months could easily be forgotten, the current spending debates in Congress could resolve in any number of ways, and primary elections within each party haven’t happened yet.

So how predictable are midterm elections, 400 days out? With the assistance of our intern Lucas Piedmonte (who assembled the table below), we explored this question by examining the political landscape at the 400-day mark of the prior 21st century midterm cycles, comparing them to the results of each election.

*The difference in responses in the right direction/wrong track question and the economy question may be a result of the questions tapping different sentiments.

In 2001, President Bush’s post-9/11 approval ratings were in the stratosphere. Accordingly, Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate and eight in the House a year later. But by 2005, Bush’s approval rating in mid-October was 41 percent. Only 33 percent described the economy as excellent or good, and his marks on responding to the hurricane and the Iraq war were more negative than positive. A year later, Democrats took control of the House for the first time since 1994, while also reclaiming the Senate.

Americans greeted President Obama with high expectations in 2009, but by October that year, he had lost considerable ground. The global financial crash was taking a toll, Obama’s approval rating was barely above water, and voters were pessimistic about the economy. Did this portend what Obama later called his “shellacking” in his first midterm, when Republicans picked up six Senate seats and 63 in the House? Perhaps. Then again, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) hadn’t been signed into law by October 2009 — meaning the political backlash against it had yet to reach full force.

The fall 2013 indicators were mixed. The most salient issue was the government shutdown that began October 1, for which Republicans received more blame. The president’s approval rating was not bad, but broad pessimism about the economy was a liability for the Democrats. Ultimately, the GOP picked up nine Senate seats and 13 House ones. Perhaps the mood today — with President Biden losing ground, as well as growing concern about the economy — is a harbinger of next year’s outcome.

President Trump’s initial ratings were lower than his recent predecessors’, and nothing had happened by early fall 2017 to improve them. In people’s minds, the economy was improving, but Trump’s unpopularity cast a long shadow. This probably explains why the GOP lost 31 House seats in 2018. However, no one anticipated the September 2018 fireworks at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, a controversy which may have helped the GOP hold the Senate (even picking up two seats).

Ultimately — and at the risk of indulging in hindsight bias — none of the midterm results really look surprising in retrospect. At 400 days out, we tend to have a reasonably good sense of the incumbent party’s strength and the fundamentals. But the margins are often malleable — to the detriment of the incumbent party in 2009–2010 and 2013–2014, and arguably in the incumbent’s benefit in 2017–2018. Frequently, the issues that are salient by this point remain so through the midterms. But sometimes a significant event — like the passage of the ACA or the Kavanaugh hearings — shakes things up in unexpected ways.

How will the 2022 midterm fit into this pattern? We’ll know in 400 days.

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