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Democrats Are Starting to Feel Hopeful About the Midterms. Should They?

Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; images by Olivier Douliery, Anna Moneymaker and Andrii Shyp, via Getty Images

This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on Wednesdays.

Just a couple of months ago, Democrats’ prospects heading into the November elections looked, if not quite doomed, then decidedly dour: Not only do Americans tend to swing against the president’s party in the midterms, but President Biden was also presiding over the worst spate of inflation in four decades and his approval ratings over the summer had plunged to the lowest of any elected president at that point in his term since the end of World War II, according to FiveThirtyEight.

But the national political environment has changed: Since July, Biden’s approval rating has risen by five percentage points and Democrats have gained around a net three percentage points in the generic ballot, which asks whether voters would prefer Democrats or Republicans to control Congress, overtaking the Republican Party’s lead.

What are some of the issues that voters care most about, and how might the parties’ recent rhetorical and legislative handling of them be driving the race? Here’s what people are saying.

Abortion

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, there was a great deal of speculation among poll watchers and pundits about whether the abrogation of the constitutional right to abortion would redound to the Democratic Party’s benefit, potentially boosting turnout and swinging independents who might otherwise vote for Republicans.

Shortly before the decision was handed down, but weeks after a draft of it had been leaked, the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg didn’t find much evidence to support this theory: “I don’t know that I’ve seen a new influx of energy,” Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the co-editor of “Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance and Revolution in Trump’s America” and the former executive editor of Teen Vogue, told her. “It’s surprising. There were marches, but it wasn’t the level of activism that we saw a couple of years ago with Black Lives Matter or even the Women’s March.”

In the months since, though, there have been signs that the curtailment of abortion rights has moved the needle: In an August poll, Gallup found that abortion had climbed on Americans’ list of “most important problems” facing the country, ranking behind only economic concerns and more general issues of government and leadership. What’s more, according to a Times analysis, Roe’s overturning was followed by a surge in voter registration among women in 10 states with available data, including Kansas, where strong turnout in an August primary helped defeat a referendum that would have effectively ended abortion rights in the state.

Because most Americans favor at least some abortion rights, many Republicans have tried to avoid making abortion a central campaign issue, emphasizing instead that the matter has been returned to the states. But that rhetorical posture became much harder to maintain last week, when Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, proposed a federal ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy — “to cringes from many of his Republican colleagues,” The Times’s Carl Hulse reported.

In the view of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, renationalizing the question of abortion regulation could be a risky political gamble for Republicans: “By Mr. Graham’s political logic, if voters in Colorado, Pennsylvania or Arizona think 15 weeks is too restrictive, they now have a reason to vote against those G.O.P. Senate candidates. Every Republican candidate will be asked to take a stance, and a Senate majority is made by swing states.”

Inflation

Poll after poll after poll has found that inflation remains voters’ top concern heading into November. And while July’s Consumer Price Index report suggested that inflation had peaked, the August report suggested that it was not cooling as quickly as the White House and many economists had forecast. The price of rent and some food items actually increased between July and August, and workers lost buying power over the last year as prices increased faster than wages.

These would be problems for any party in power during an election year, much less one whose leader has boasted of delivering wage gains. “Citizens of countries suffering from inflation have routinely sought to assign blame — to the government, to greedy companies or to politicians,” The Times’s Jonathan Weisman wrote last week of the Republican campaign strategy to blame Democrats for inflation. “Inflationary periods often yield labor strife, as workers and unions press for wage increases to keep up with rising prices, point fingers at ‘price-gouging’ companies and, more than anything, rage at those in power.”

At the same time, some Republican officials have become concerned that inflation may no longer be the electoral clincher they had hoped for: Gasoline prices have fallen 26 percent from the record above $5 a gallon set in June, and consumer sentiment has improved as a result. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported this month that consumer inflation expectations were also falling, with households now expecting gas prices to be roughly unchanged a year from now.

If inflation is indeed sinking in salience, some conservatives believe that Republicans will regret not elevating other issues like school curriculums, crime and immigration, Gabby Orr reported for CNN. “Our closing pitch must be compelling enough to make Republicans want to vote,” a Senate campaign aide told her. “‘It’s the economy, stupid’ no longer fits into that category.”

Student debt relief

When Biden made the decision in August after months of lobbying to wipe out up to $20,000 of student loan debt for tens of millions of low- and middle-income Americans, it was in part because his chief of staff, among others, had argued that the relief could endear the administration to younger voters — an age group that, while more Democratic-leaning than any other, had broadly soured on the president.

“It certainly energizes young people and people with student loan debt, which also includes many Republicans,” Andre Perry, a senior fellow at Brookings, told NPR. “Overall, it’s a political win for Biden because he’s delivering on his promises, he has a chance to pick up on some moderate Republicans who have debt.”

This read of Biden’s debt jubilee is shared even by some of his political enemies:

But Philip Bump wrote for The Washington Post that, so far, there are no obvious signs that young people will reward Biden for the relief plan, which hasn’t yet taken effect. In approval rating polls since August, “when we look at Americans under 30 — the group with the most debt — there’s been little to no movement at all,” he noted.

Nor, as Vox’s Christian Paz pointed out, does the relief plan seem to be making much of an impression with independent voters, who polls have suggested are divided on the issue. “Ultimately, the policy might have had the effect of stopping the bleeding of support that Biden and Democrats were experiencing among their base,” he wrote. But, he added, “What is apparent is that Biden’s action is not as popular with the kind of voter that tends to matter in midterm elections in swing states: older white Americans and independents.”

The polling wild card

The polling profession entered something of a legitimacy crisis after the 2016 presidential election that only deepened in 2020, as this newsletter has explored, and there’s good reason to be wary of the polling data we’ve seen so far in 2022: As Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, noted last week, Democratic Senate candidates are outrunning expectations in the same places where the polls overestimated Biden in 2020 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, raising the possibility that the party’s supposedly favorable odds of retaining Senate control are an illusion.

Polling mistakes matter not just because they can give pundits and readers a false impression of how an election might turn out; as Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Barack Obama, wrote in his newsletter last weekend, they can also change the outcome of the election itself, because campaigns, national party committees and super PACs rely on polling to make decisions about where to direct their efforts and funds.

But Pfeiffer (and Cohn, too) sees evidence that the polls might actually be right this time around: Polls were more accurate in the 2018 midterms than they were in the 2020 presidential race, and recent special elections — including one that resulted in the pickup of a House seat in Alaska — have been encouraging for Democrats.

Their predictive function (or dysfunction) aside, polls can also be useful for revealing trends in public opinion and voter behavior. In 2016, for example, pre-election polls accurately showed that Donald Trump was making huge gains among white voters without college degrees, and in 2020 they showed that he was also making gains among Hispanic voters. Even when polls miss on the horse race, Cohn noted this week, “these trends uncovered by polls continue to have import.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at debatable@nytimes.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


READ MORE

“Are the Polls Wrong Again?” [The New York Times]

“Will Abortion Affect the Midterm Vote for Candidates? Lessons From the Ban Gay Marriage Ballot Initiatives” [The Brookings Institution]

“Two Months That Turned the 2022 Midterms on Their Head” [The Cook Political Report]

“America’s Dueling Realities on a Key Question: Is the Economy Good or Bad?” [The New York Times]

“Four Types of Voters We’re Watching in the Midterms” [The New York Times]


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