This combination — even deeper losses in rural areas paired with fallout in more populous areas — would be catastrophic for Democrats, particularly in the competitive Midwest, where Mr. Biden in 2020 helped arrest Democratic decline in many white, rural areas but where it is not hard to imagine Democratic performance continuing to slide.
Like this year, the fundamentals for the 2022 midterms are not in the Democrats’ favor. Midterms often act as an agent of change in the House. The president’s party has lost ground in the House in 37 of the 40 midterms since the Civil War, with an average seat loss of 33 (since World War II, the average is a smaller, though still substantial, 27). Since 1900, the House has flipped party control 11 times, and nine of those changes have come in midterm election years, including the last five (1954, 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018). Given that Republicans need to pick up only five seats next year, they are very well positioned to win the chamber.
It is not entirely unheard-of for the presidential party to net House seats in the midterms. It happened in 1998 and 2002, though those come with significant caveats. In ’98, President Bill Clinton had strong approval in spite of (or perhaps aided by) his impeachment battle with Republicans and presided over a strong economy; Democrats had also had lost a lot of ground in the 1994 midterm (and made only a dent in that new Republican majority in 1996). They gained a modest four seats.
In 2002, Republicans were defending a slim majority, but they benefited from President George W. Bush’s sky-high approval rating following the Sept. 11 attacks and decennial reapportionment and redistricting, which contributed to their eight-seat net gain.
So against this political gravity, is there anything Democrats can do? The passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill as well as the possible passage of the party’s Build Back Better social spending package could help, though there is likely not a significant direct reward — new laws aren’t a magic bullet in campaigning. But a year from now, Democrats could be coming into the election under strong economic conditions and no longer mired in a high-profile intraparty stalemate (the McAuliffe campaign pointed to Democratic infighting as a drag).
Factors like gas prices and the trajectory of Covid may be largely beyond the Democrats’ influence, but it is entirely possible that the country’s mood will brighten by November 2022 — and that could bolster Mr. Biden’s approval rating.
When parties have bucked the midterm history, they’ve sometimes had an unusually good development emerge in their favor. If there is any lesson from last week’s results, it is that the circumstances were ordinary, not extraordinary. If they remain so, the Democratic outlook for next year — as it so often is for the presidential party in a midterm election — could be bleak.
Kyle Kondik is the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and the author of “The Long Red Thread: How Democratic Dominance Gave Way to Republican Advantage in U.S. House Elections.”