At the same time, Bruce Cain of Stanford suggested that a Democratic defeat in 2022 could be a potentially favorable development for the party’s long term prospects:
It is quite possible that losing in the 2022 midterm is the best path to winning the presidency in 2024. It will put the Republicans in a ‘“put up or shut up” spot vis a vis problems facing the country, and Biden meanwhile can work the middle without looking over his left shoulder.
Cain took this logic a step further to argue that
In retrospect the worst thing that happened to Biden was the Democrats winning the two seats in Georgia. It raised expectations among some in his party that they could go left legislatively while the political sun was shining when in reality the political math was not there for that kind of policy ambition.
The best hope for the Democrats is that Trump will undermine some Republicans during his vengeance tour and that the weakness of the people who want to run under his banner will create some unexpected wins for the Democrats.
Howard Rosenthal, a political scientist at N.Y.U., added this observation:
Pundits, who have to earn a living, always want to impute causality to election losses. However, the midterm cycle is just normal. Voters tend to balance the president. Over time, they also create divided government at the state level.
A surprising number of those I contacted made the case that the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan did more lasting damage to Biden than might have been expected.
“The extended wall-to-wall media coverage of the hurried exit from Afghanistan probably served as a catalyst for some folks to ‘update’ their views on Biden’s performance and take into consideration both the foreign and domestic concerns,” Ted Brader, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, wrote in an email:
I’m skeptical that those events themselves drove the lower assessments; Americans weigh domestic events much heavier than foreign affairs. But the heightened attention and criticism can serve as an attention-getting call to re-evaluate the president: “wait, how well is he doing his job?” As political science research has convincingly demonstrated, bipartisan criticism, as we saw with the Afghan withdrawal, in particular, opens the door to weaker support among Independents and members of the president’s own party.
Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California—San Diego, wrote me that “things touching on competence (Afghanistan, border, congressional inaction) are probably the most important” in driving down Biden’s ratings, but “for the future, it is inflation and the general economy that will matter most, I think.”
Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke, contended in an email that the problems facing Biden and his Democratic colleagues run deeper than any single issue:
Biden was elected as a moderate to put back some sanity into government through a steady hand and incremental reforms. Instead, a wing of the Democratic Party took the 2020 election in which the Democratic Party lost a surprising number of House seats as a voter mandate to implement a pretty fundamental program of social reform and sociocultural change. While I personally might like a lot of these policy initiatives myself, I also realize that this programmatic ambition is consistent with the wishes of only a minority of core Democratic voters, and certainly not that of the centrist voters who prevented Trump from being re-elected.
The history of midterm elections suggests that substantial House losses for the party of the incumbent president are inevitable, barring such unusual circumstances as public hostility to the Republican-led impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks raising Republican support in 2002 — the only two times since that the incumbent party gained seats since the second World War.
In 2010, Joseph Bafumi, Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, political scientists at Dartmouth, Columbia and the University of Texas-Austin, published “Balancing, Generic Polls and Midterm Congressional Elections” in which they argued that “between February and Election Day, the presidential party’s vote strength almost always declines.” But, they continued,
the degree of decline is unrelated to the public’s evaluation of the president. Clearly, during the midterm election year, the electorate shifts away from the presidential party in its vote choice for reasons that have nothing to do with the electorate’s attitudes toward the president. By default, this is balancing: the electorate votes against the presidential party to give more power to the other party
In a 1988 paper, “The Puzzle of Midterm Loss,” Erikson examined every midterm contest since 1902 and explicitly rejected the theory that such contests are a “negative referendum on presidential performance.” Instead, Erikson wrote,
A “presidential penalty” explanation fits the data nicely. By this explanation, the midterm electorate penalized the president’s party for being the party in power: holding constant the presidential year House vote, the president’s party does much worse at midterm than it would if it did not control the presidency.
While substantial midterm losses for the incumbent president’s party are inevitable under most circumstances, that does not mean external developments have no influence on the scope of the outcome.
Kitschelt, quoting James Carville, noted in his email that “It’s the economy, stupid. And that means inflation, the supply chain troubles and the inability of the Democrats to extend the social safety net in an incremental fashion.”
The inflation rate, Dritan Nesho, the director of civic technology and engagement at Microsoft and a co-director of the Harvard-Harris Poll, wrote in an email,
is now outpacing wage growth. As a consequence close to 4 in 10 voters are saying that their personal financial situation is getting worse. This figure is up from the low 20s in May” and “importantly, majorities of voters are not confident in either the Biden administration keeping inflation at bay (56 percent not confident/44 percent confident) and also of the Federal Reserve (53 percent not confident/47 percent confident).
In addition, Nesho said,
over two-third of voters (68 percent) believe illegal monthly border crossings have increased since Biden took office, 65 percent blame Biden’s executive orders for encouraging illegal immigration, and 68 percent want stricter policies to reduce the flow of people across the border.
In January 2021, the month Biden took office, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index stood at 79. By Nov. 1, the index had fallen to 66.8, the lowest it has been since November 2011. Richard Curtin, director of the consumer sentiment survey, wrote in a commentary accompanying the report: “Consumer sentiment fell in early November to its lowest level in a decade due to an escalating inflation rate and the growing belief among consumers that no effective policies have yet been developed to reduce the damage from surging inflation.”
Similarly, when Biden took office in January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the inflation rate was 1.4 percent; as of October this year, the rate had risen to 6.2 percent.