October 17

By Susan Milligan

An unpopular president. Domestic abuse and other scandals. A deeply unhappy electorate displeased with the direction the country is headed.

All of those things would once have been defining factors in races for the House and Senate, almost ensuring a contender’s defeat. But with the midterms just a few weeks away, the rule this year is that there are no rules, and the analytics political prognosticators use to predict the outcome of the elections are proving as maddeningly unreliable as the statistics that lead sports coaches and managers to choose the wrong play or pitch.

Nothing Scandalous About This Scandal

Democratic presidential contender Gary Hart had an affair (and lied about it) in 1984, effectively killing his once-promising campaign. Voter anger over the 1992 House bank “scandal” – lawmakers were allowed to write checks against pending deposits from a non-chartered House bank – led to early retirements and election losses for some of the hundreds of involved lawmakers.

But now, such cases seem quaint, with candidates retaining the support of their bases despite damaging revelations. Georgia Republican Herschel Walker, running against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, has been accused of holding a gun to his former wife’s head, lying about his business, his academic record and being an FBI agent, and paying for an abortion for a former girlfriend. Walker, an adamant foe of abortion, has denied the allegations.

Still, Walker is running neck-and-neck with Warnock, with the GOP rallying behind the man whose victory is likely essential to a Republican takeover of the Senate. Scandals don’t appear to be moving the needle much.

What a Drag. Not!

There’s little more annoying to a down-ticket candidate in the president’s party than having to run alongside a president unpopular with the public. When the president’s approval rating is low, candidates in the same party either have to run away from the commander in chief – providing ad copy for gleeful opposing party candidates – or attach themselves to someone not much liked by the voting public.

Unpopular presidents have typically been a drag on their parties’ ticket, since voters in the opposing party are more motivated to vote, and voters in the president’s party just don’t feel like making the effort. President Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were in the high 30s and low-to-mid 40s in 1994; his party lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats that year. President Barack Obama, facing a public angry about the then-unpopular Affordable Care Act and the economy, suffered what he acknowledged was a “shellacking” in 2010, with Democrats losing 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate. President Donald Trump in 2018 saw his Republican Party lose control of the House, with Democrats picking up 41 seats.

But President Joe Biden, his approval numbers improving but still low doesn’t seem to be dragging down his party’s contenders.

In polling by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, Democratic candidates for Senate and governor are not all ahead – but they are doing much better than Biden is, in those same polls, says Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist poll.

In Texas, for example, Biden has a 39% approval rating, with 53% of Lone Star Staters approving of the president, Marist found. But those same voters prefer a Republican candidate for Congress over a Democrat by just 4 percentage points (48% to 44%).

Voters are just making separate assessments, Miringoff says. “That can explain why even nationally you can see a 40% approval rating (for Biden), and yet the (Democratic) candidate for Senate and Congress can actually be running ahead of that number.”

In Wisconsin, a CBS poll found that 39% of voters approve of Biden, and 61% disapprove. But that same poll found that a plurality of voters – 42% – said their views on Biden would have no impact on how they voted for senator, 36% said their vote would reflect their opposition to Biden, and 21% said their vote for Senate would be to support Biden.

In a typical midterm year with an unpopular president, Biden’s party would almost certainly lose control of the 50-50 Senate along with control of the House, where Democrats now have a narrow majority. But Democratic Senate candidates are looking strong in two states where the GOP should have been able to pick up seats – New Hampshire and Arizona – and appear positioned to pick up a seat in Pennsylvania. Senate races in Ohio and North Carolina are close, although those states have been very hard for Democrats to win statewide. Republicans are still widely expected to take back control of the House, but it is not a done deal, and the Senate is up for grabs as well.

“We come into this midterm understanding that Democrats are likely going to lose seats,” veteran Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter said in a recent webinar on the midterms hosted by the University of Southern California. “But I think over the past year Democrats have been successful in preventing this from becoming a referendum on President Biden.”

Wrong is Right (and Left)

Consistently, polling shows Americans think the country is on the wrong track, with an average 67.5% seeing the country going in the wrong direction and 26.6% believing the nation is on the right track. On paper, that would portend a devastating fall for the party in power, since it suggests that an overwhelming part of the country wants change.

But in the current political climate, those numbers are more nuanced, with voters blaming different people and parties for the country’s woes.

The “wrong-track” voters include both those who think Biden and the Democrats are too liberal, as well as those worried that the country as a whole is moving in the wrong direction on matters such as abortion rights and the strength of democracy.

A New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday, for example, found that less than a fourth – 24% – of voters think the country is on the right track. And yet, 45% said they would vote for a Democrat for Congress. That’s less than the 49% who said they would vote for a Republican, but it is nowhere near the gap one would expect, given how unhappy the electorate is.

Wave Good-Bye to Waves

Midterms can be “wave” elections, with one party or group making big gains as the electorate responds to events. In 1992, the “Year of the Woman,” following the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, ushered in a then-record of women into Congress. Midterms in 1994 and 2010 resulted in big gains by Republicans, while 2018 was a good showing for House Democrats.

Senate races – which theoretically should be less subject to a wave, since state trends and individual candidates tend to overshadow national politics – nonetheless have tended to go one way or the other in history. For example, in 2008 there were eight Senate seats in close contention. All went to the Democrats that year.

But in 2020, while Democrats won the trifecta of the presidency, the House and the Senate, there was no blue wave. Democrats lost seats in the House and took control only barely in the Senate.

This year, there are competitive Senate races in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia and Nevada, with New Hampshire somewhat in play. But it appears unlikely all those seats will go to either Democrats or Republicans. Further, in some places – such as Arizona and Georgia – polling shows that voters could favor one party for governor and another for Senate.

Underwater. But still breathing

No candidate – especially an incumbent – wants to be “underwater,” the phrase pollsters use for a candidate whose approval ratings are lower than his or her disapproval ratings. The belief is (or was) that those numbers were a rating indicator of how voters really felt about the candidate and whether they would show up at the voting booth.

That is not the case this year. Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, is “underwater” with a 41% approval rating and a 45% disapproval rating, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll. His Democratic opponent, Mandela Barnes, is relatively even, with a 39% approval rating and a 40% disapproval rating But that same poll has Johnson leading Barnes among likely voters, 52% to 46%.

In New Hampshire, Democratic incumbent Sen,. Maggie Hassan has a 48% favorable rating and a 51% unfavorable rating, according to a recent poll by St. Anselm College. But Hassan is also substantially ahead – nearly 8 percentage points – of her GOP challenger, Donald Bolduc.

A Marist poll in Ohio found that Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance has a 30% approval rating, with 36% disapproving of him. But he’s still a single percentage point ahead in that poll of Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who has a 40% approval rating and a 25% disapproval rating, the poll found.

The lesson? Americans don’t like many politicians in general, so the “underwater” line is less important.

Next month, the winners may well be those less disliked by voters.