Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (Source: Tom Wolf Flickr.)
Not so long ago, Democrats faced long odds of retaining their majorities in Congress after the November midterm elections.
Now, Democrats are the favorites to keep control of the U.S. Senate. Furthermore, Democratic success in recent special elections, including a surprise victory in Alaska, has party leaders believing they can upset predictions of a Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Democrats have good reasons for their optimism. After the U.S Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in June that ended abortion rights, voter registrations by women surged around the country. Kansas voters rejected an effort to restrict abortion protections.
President Joe Biden’s popularity increased by several percentage points after Congressional enactment of key parts of his agenda, including measures to reduce prescription drug costs and boost renewable sources of energy. His executive order to forgive student debt appears to have energized young voters.
Republicans are doing their part by nominating extremist, unqualified, or incompetent candidates for national and state offices. For example, State Senator Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, the Republican candidate for governor, seems determined to alienate every constituency in Pennsylvania except Christian nationalists.
Notwithstanding Democratic hopes, election forecasters at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) last week in Montreal predicted a Republican sweep at the polls.
Most of the models presented by political scientists focus on the so-called “fundamentals” or structural variables that exert powerful effects in every midterm election.
History and psychology tell us that since 1950, the president’s party lost House seats in every midterm except two. The underlying dynamic is that voters in the out-party are more motivated to turn out than those whose party controls the White House.
No political party of the president with a net unpopular rating entering the midterms has gained seats in Congress since at least 1950, according to scholars Charles Tien and Michael Lewis-Beck. Despite the improvement of Biden’s standing, more than half of voters nationally disapprove of his performance.
Another structural influence is the state of the economy during the midterm election year. Whether defined as net personal income, gross domestic product, or the “misery index” of annual inflation plus unemployment, the economy in 2022 is not on the Democrats’ side.
The fundamentals approach assumes that candidates and campaigns do not make a difference in who wins elections most of the time. No matter the event – scandal, military triumph, gas price hikes, even one-arm salutes – competing campaigns will target and reinforce the views of their supporters, thus cancelling each other out.
After a summer in which Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman ran circles around Republican Mehmet Oz, it may be hard to believe that campaigns do not matter.
However, political science models attempt to predict overall party gains and losses in Congress, not the outcomes of individual races.
Democrats, it might be best for you to sit down while reading the next few paragraphs.
Using a model that includes presidential approval, the economy, and assessments of individual races by Inside Elections (formerly the Rothenberg Political Report), Tien and Lewis-Beck predict a GOP gain of 37 House and three Senate seats. If their forecast is 100% accurate, Republicans would hold a 250-185 majority in the House and a 53-47 advantage in the Senate.
Writing for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Alan Abramowitz of Emory University predicts a more modest Democratic loss of 19 House seats. The current 50-50 party split in the Senate is likely to remain, Abramowitz suggests, due in part to Republicans having to defend more seats (21) than do the Democrats (14). All Democratic incumbents and two Republican Senate seats, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, are in states won by Biden in 2020.
Abramowitz’s model relies more on the generic party question, which asks voters for which party they plan to vote in Congressional races without mentioning specific candidates. Democrats have led this poll by 1-2 points over the past few weeks.
Long-time prognosticator James Campbell of SUNY-Buffalo uses the competitiveness ratings of the Cook Political Report to estimate how many House and Senate seats are “in trouble.” For 2022, Cook rates 36 Democratic and 11 Republican House districts as “toss-ups” or worse. Based on historic ratios of incumbents surviving toss-up elections, Campbell predicts a 42-seat Democratic loss in the House.
With most Senate seats rated as safe for the incumbent party, Democrats are expected to lose a net of one seat, according to Campbell. Unfortunately for them, losing just one seat will make U.S. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the chamber’s majority leader once again.
There may be more volatility in this year’s elections. Boundaries of most House districts changed to reflect the findings of the 2020 U.S. Census. Furthermore, an average of only 27 percent believe the U.S. is going in the right direction, while 65 percent of those polled say the country is on the wrong track.
This is not good for any incumbent politician, Democratic or Republican.
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