Historically, elections can generally be predicted on three macro metrics, 1) Presidential approval ratings, 2) the direction of the country’s numbers and 3) the generic ballot. In recent years, a majority of voters have reported the country being in the wrong track regardless of electoral results or who is in power. But, more generally, Presidential approval and generic ballot numbers have predicted electoral results.
Take for example the 2004 Presidential election. George Bush was just above water in his approval ratings and guess what, he won the election with just over half of the electorate’s support. Fast forward to 2012 and the Barack Obama had rebounded to having majority approval by the time of his reelection. Even Donald Trump, who’s approval hovered around 46 – 47 percent on the eve of the election won 46.9 percent of the national popular vote. So, the correlation between Presidential approval and reelection is strong though much less so for the incumbent party president’s successor. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had strong approval ratings on the eve of the 2000 and 2016 elections and both Al Gore (2000) and Hillary Clinton (2016) lost the election (though they did win the popular vote).
So, what abut the generic ballot? Well, it generally correlates with electoral results. Going from 2006 onward the party which led in the generic ballot did win the popular vote each midterm. Even so, a pattern has emerged in generic ballot polls which keeps Democrats on edge more than Republicans (these polls tend to lean to the left of actual results).
Take for example the 2014 results. Using RCP’s polling average on the eve of the election Republicans led by 2.4 points but they won by 5.7 points. Though beyond the scope of this article, in statewide races across the country there also was a distinct Democratic bias. Even the 2016 election saw the same pattern though by only a couple points. Ironically, Democrats saw the generic ballot underestimate their results by a point in 2018 but 2020 saw a return to form of the generic ballot overestimating their results by three plus points.
So what do presidential approval and generic ballot polls signal for Democrats nine months from the election? Well….. they should probably have some strong drinks ready on election night. President Biden’s approval ratings are sitting in the low 40’s (note, this is worse than Obama’s average numbers ever were) and the main drags (inflation, COVID response and a faltering legislative agenda) are only getting worse or at least barely improving.
Perhaps worse for Democrats, the generic ballot is showing GOP margins nine months out from the election in excess of four points! If we factor in the fact on average the generic ballot has favored Democrats by 2.5 points this means the GOP margin is about 6 points. Oh, and it only gets worse from here. If this data is not bad enough the only polls showing Democrats ahead show significant numbers undecided (ie. YouGov 39R/43/D) vs. the polls showing fewer undecided with a clear GOP edge. The odds of undecide voters in massive numbers moving to the incumbent party actually has no historical precedent.
Of course, the popular vote means little except at the margins in our district based elections. This redistricting cycle has ensured there are fewer swing seats on both sides (see GOP gerrymandering in TX and Democratic gerrymandering in IL, NY and OR for examples). But, since Democrats are defending a fragile majority and some of their gerrymanders in NV and NM rely on narrow margins it is likely a strong national GOP environment will take some purple districts with it. This is also to say nothing of statewide races for Senate, and many, many statewide constitutional offices. By the way, just check out that Illinois map. True don’t give a f**k about communities of interest.
A number of states, Ohio and North Carolina most notably, with activist Democratic lean state supreme courts, have not finished redistricting. Florida has not finished their process and the chambers are hashing out how conservative leaning to make their map so they can comply with an anti-gerrymandering 2010 ballot measure. But, most likely, this will only impact the margins. A strong national GOP environment is likely to suck up true swing seats.
For Democrats, right now there worry has to be not if there is a wave brewing, but how big will it be and where will it be particularly harmful. For example, will the pro GOP Hispanic edge from 2020 and last year continue and extend into New Mexico, South Texas, Florida and California? Will depressed leftist turnout hurt Democrats in light blue seats or swing suburban seats in a neutral environment they would easily win?
Damage control at this point is not enough and the strategy of the party seems to be to try and pivot to the middle The problem being this is unlikely to excite a depressed base and many swing voters will decide based on their standard of living. As it is now, gas prices and food are climbing and a constant daily reminder of people’s dollar buying less.
Democrats should be freaked and now is the time to hit the “panic” button.