They Aren’t Disaffected Democrats

I have some disagreements with Henry Olsen’s analysist in his Washington Post column about Democratic prospects in the midterms but I also disagree with what appears to be the prevailing wisdom among the Democratic leadership. Olsen first. Here’s his characterization of Democratic hopes for the midterms:

The case for Democratic optimism goes something like this: Yes, President Biden is deeply unpopular — more unpopular at this point in his presidency than any other president since Harry S. Truman, according to FiveThirtyEight. Despite that, the Democratic Party’s numbers in the generic congressional ballot, which asks respondents which party’s candidates they would back if the election were held today, are higher than Biden’s approval rating. Plus, many voters who are unhappy with Biden are also uncommitted in congressional races. That gives Democrats the chance, according to this view, to convince these voters that Democrats deserve another chance to govern despite their record over the past two years.

and here are his remarks on why that’s wishful thinking:

Perhaps, but the history of undecided voters suggests that’s not likely. A late June Politico-Morning Consult poll shows that Biden had a net minus 12 percent job approval rating — 43 percent approved versus 55 percent who disapproved — while Democrats were ahead in the generic congressional ballot 45 to 42. That difference is largely due to two factors: Democrats who are unhappy with Biden who nevertheless support their party, and independents unhappy with Biden who are undecided for Congress. Only 79 percent of Democrats approve of Biden’s job performance, but 93 percent will vote for the party. Meanwhile a whopping 38 percent of independents are still undecided for Congress, even though 66 percent do not approve of Biden’s performance. The voters Democrats need to convince are not unhappy partisans; they are people with no party loyalties whatsoever.

These findings are replicated in virtually every other recent poll that publishes similar data. The most recent Economist-YouGov poll, for example, shows Biden underwater among independents by a 28-to-58 margin, while Democrats lead among them by only 34 to 32. The independents who are undecided, we can infer, are nearly uniformly unhappy with the president. The most recent NPR-Marist and Monmouth polls also show that the undecided vote comes almost entirely from independents who disapprove of Biden.

History shows that these voters tend to break sharply against the president’s party by Election Day. The exit polls from the last four midterm elections all show that independents voted against the president’s party by between 12 and 19 points. In each case, the president had a net negative job rating on Election Day. Is there any reason, given the sharply negative views people hold toward Biden and about the state of affairs in the United States today, to think this time will be different?

My experience has been that a lot of Democrats don’t believe there are any genuinely independent voters. They think there are only disaffected Democrats and Republicans and by far the greatest number are disaffected Democrats. In addition they seem to think that the Supreme Court is doing their campaigning for them and overturning Roe v. Wade and Casey will impel voters to rally to Democratic candidates.

That’s my main disagreement with Mr. Olsen. I don’t think he’s reading Democratic thinking correctly. There is a notable tendency among them to see the glass as half-full. Speaking as someone who has actually canvassed door to door IMO there is a difference in temperament between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans don’t answer the door. I suspect that explains the polling issues.

There are several problems with the Democrats’ strategy. As to independents IMO there are many different reasons people are independents including they’re not interested in politics, they’re in despair about politics, they’re not joiners, they’re disaffected Democrats, or they’re disaffected Republicans, just to name five reasons. I honestly don’t believe that a lot of independents are disaffected Democrats who will return to their tribe at election time.

And regarding Dobbs I see two problems. First, no polling data supports the belief that the decision will motivate enough people to swing the election in Democrats’ favor. And second I suspect that anyone for whom support for a right to abortion was a key motivating factor was going to vote Democratic anyway.

I see this midterm as one like no other. Among the reasons for that are

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and as or more important, the policy responses to it. By the standard Candidate Biden articulated during his campaign he should already have resigned. The trend isn’t moving in the right direction right now.
  • We haven’t had the sort of inflation we have at present for more than 40 years—that’s not within living memory for a majority of Americans.
  • We haven’t had a president with this low an approval rating going into the midterms in 70 years.
  • We’ve never had a president this old. And speaking brutally honestly although a lot of Republicans seem to be kidding themselves about Biden’s degree of disability it cannot be denied that Biden has lost a step or two. He’s not a drooling senile lump but he’s not the man he was when he was Obama’s vice president, either.
  • These midterm elections are likely to be scrutinized as no other.
  • There are a lot of unknown unknowns.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I don’t see the trends as favoring the Democrats, either. And I think the Democratic leadership is sclerotic, literally and figuratively.

4 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    One advantage the Democrats have is the lack of competitive seats in Congress. They will still, barring some black swan, lose the House, but their floor is much higher thanks to safe seats after reapportionment that it won’t be as bad as the poll and other numbers would suggest.

    Ironically, this is likely to reinforce many of the aspects of the party that you discuss. Like 2010, it will be the more moderate members that get the boot which will strengthen the progressive wing.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    “We haven’t had a president with this low an approval rating going into the midterms in 70 years”

    According to RCP, George W Bush had a 39% approval rating on election day 2006, fairly close to Biden’s current approval rating (38.1%).

    I’m not sure that’s a great comfort, merely a “shellacking” instead of a “cataclysm”.

  • Jan Link

    Voters like to vote in their own party members, no matter how bad or disappointing their party’s policies have been to them. That is a trend which will keep the democrats from falling over too steep of a cliff of defeat in November. I personally find such blind loyalty to be why everything seems to stay the same, in both parties. The goal has always been to keep partisans drinking at the same watering hole, no matter what means are employed to do so. Facts, truth, for-the-good-of-the-country memes, maintaining cultural integrity, public trust in the election process – let it all be dammed – winning at any cost is what matters.

  • Jan Link

    ”And I think the Democratic leadership is sclerotic, literally and figuratively”

    Last night I tuned into Trump’s Alaska rally. Remembering he is an ex-president, constantly under the magnifying glass of the Dems and the democratically-controlled press, in their attempts to find a career-ending, criminal blemish or blame him for some untoward behavior, there were thousands of people waiting to give him a long standing ovation. The lines to even get into the venue stretched out for what seemed like miles. The people were brimming over with happy enthusiasm to be there, and loved how he personally engaged with them throughout his far-from-boring speech. I was frankly taken aback by how much “the people”:still favor this man, over the one seated in the WH today. There is also nothing “sclerotic” about how he interacts with and is seen as a current-day leader by so many in this country. What a contrast from the incoherence and incompetence exuded by Joe Biden!!!

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