Just How Bad Is It Out There for Democrats?

Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In the heady aftermath of Republicans winning the Virginia governorship this month, Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader who hopes to become speaker after the 2022 midterm elections, made a bold claim at the Capitol.

“If you’re a Democrat and President Biden won your seat by 16 points, you’re in a competitive race next year,” McCarthy declared. “You are no longer safe.”

It was, by most measures, more bullish hyperbole than sincere prognostication. There are 276 House seats that Biden won by less than that — far more than Republicans have held in nearly a century. (As of now, Democrats hold a narrow 221-213 majority.)

But there was also an undisputed truth undergirding McCarthy’s braggadocio: Democratic support has plunged nationally in recent months. The party’s loss in Virginia was just the most consequential example.

Exactly how far and fast Democratic popularity has fallen is hotly debated in both parties.

Virginia was one key data point: The election showed a Republican improvement of 12 percentage points, from Biden’s win in the state a year ago by 10 points to Democrats’ loss of the governorship this month by two points. The governor’s race in New Jersey swung toward Republicans by a similar margin.

Still, few strategists, Democrat or Republican, believe the Democratic brand’s collapse nationally has been quite that complete and widespread.

Among campaign insiders, one popular measurement that is closely tracked to gauge the mood of the electorate is the “generic ballot test.” That is when pollsters ask voters whom they would prefer to serve in Congress — a Democrat or a Republican, with no names attached.

For years, Democrats continuously have held an edge in this metric.

Until now.

For the first time since January 2016, Republicans are now preferred, according to the FiveThirtyEight public polling average. FiveThirtyEight’s average has swung 4.6 points in the last six months toward the G.O.P.

Just how bad is it out there for the Democrats? A Washington Post/ABC News poll last weekend showed Republicans in the strongest position on this measure in the poll’s four-decade history. On Thursday, a poll from Quinnipiac University of registered voters said 46 percent wanted G.O.P. control of the House, compared with 41 percent for Democrats.

The same trend is showing up in private surveys. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s internal polling this month showed that Republicans in battleground districts had improved by seven percentage points since the beginning of the year. So-called generic Republicans began the year three points behind Democrats; now they are ahead by four points.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s generic ballot testing this month also shows Democrats trailing — albeit by two points. Party officials said that actually was an improvementfrom some other recent months. The D.C.C.C. declined to say what its polling showed at the start of the year.

Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who is chairman of the House Republican campaign arm, said in an interview that the N.R.C.C.’s private polling at the start of the year measured Biden’s approval rating as 10 percentage points higher than his disapproval rating. Now, Emmer said, it’s the reverse: Biden’s disapproval is 10 points higher.

Emmer offered a less hyperbolic version of McCarthy’s prediction of exactly how many Democrats are at risk in 2022. “The experts are telling me that any Democrat who sits in a seat Joe Biden won by 10 points or less a year ago is vulnerable,” Emmer said.

That is still roughly 250 seats. “We will win the majority,” Emmer said flatly, “but we’re going to let the voters tell us how big that’s going to be.”

The indicators for Democrats are not quite as sour everywhere.

My colleague Nate Cohn wrote earlier this week in the newsletter about two House special elections in Ohio, where Democrats finished only about three percentage points behind Biden’s performance.

That is erosion, but it’s not as politically catastrophic.

And in Pennsylvania, a Supreme Court vacancy was contested with millions of dollars in spending. In some ways, the contest functionally pitted a generic Democrat against a generic Republican, because even the most engaged voters know little to nothing about candidates for the judiciary.

The Republican candidate won by 2.6 percentage points — in a state Biden carried by 1.2 points in 2020. That represented a nearly four-point improvement for Republicans.

To summarize, various data points show a range of possibility for Democratic decline: somewhere between three to 12 percentage points. None of the possible outcomes bode well for holding the House in 2022 or maintaining control of a Senate now equally divided between 50 Democratic-aligned senators and 50 Republicans.

Perhaps what is giving Democrats the most solace is the calendar. It is 2021 still and not 2022.

Democrats also hope they will have more to sell in the coming year — Biden signed a $1 trillion infrastructure package on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, and a $1.85 trillion social policy and climate change bill is winding its way through Congress — and more time to sell it.

Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the chairman of the D.C.C.C., has pushed for both the president and Democratic members of Congress to more forcefully pitch what they have already passed this year. As he told my colleague Trip Gabriel this month: “My message is ‘free Joe Biden.’ That campaign needs to start now before the next crisis takes over the news cycle.”

Maloney said it was understandable that voters hadn’t given Democrats credit for the large economic recovery measure that passed earlier in the year or for the new infrastructure spending.

“We don’t expect them to know if we don’t tell them,” he said this week on Capitol Hill. “So we’re going to tell them.”

Were you forwarded this newsletter? Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

Back to top button