How the Democrats Got Their Groove Back

How the Democrats Got Their Groove Back

Just a few months ago, both Joe Biden and the Democratic Party were facing grim prospects—not just for the midterms but for the foreseeable future. Biden’s presidency seemed adrift, with all his promised Build Back Better agenda roadblocked by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Starting with the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan—a move that had majority support but was accompanied by dismal images of American defeat—Biden’s reputation for competence had been badly tarnished.

The sense of a presidency that had lost the ability to govern only intensified as inflation, and particularly gas prices, surged after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Biden’s approval ratings sank precipitously, going in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate from 53 percent at the start of his presidency to 37.5 by July 20, 2022. It seemed that Biden was dragging the Democrats down with him. Historically, the president’s party usually fares poorly in midterms, so there was a real possibility of an electoral bloodbath for Democrats comparable to 1994 (when Republicans led by Newt Gingrich swept into Congress) or 2010 (the Tea Party wave).

But starting in mid-August, something strange happened. Biden’s approval rating slowly started to inch upwards (currently at 42.4 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight). More significantly, Democrats began outperforming in special elections as well as in Senate and House polls, winning House races in New York and Alaska that they were expected to lose.

Running the numbers, Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight made the case for a clear trend demonstrating an unexpectedly strong Democratic Party:

The pattern of Democratic overperformance started with the June 28 special election in Nebraska’s 1st District. No one expected this district with an R+17 partisan lean to be competitive, but it was a nailbiter: Republicans won by just 5 points. Then, on Aug. 9, Democrats came even closer (within 4 points) in a similarly red district, Minnesota’s 1st (partisan lean R+15). This was still just two data points, though. But then, of course, came Tuesday’s special elections in New York. In the 19th District, Democrats’ winning margin was 6 points better than the district’s R+4 partisan lean, and in the 23rd District, it was nine points better.

For Rakich, the evidence suggests that since the Dobbs decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion, “the political winds are now at Democrats’ backs.”

Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Jennifer Rubin noted that political forecasters such as The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball are all downgrading Republican chances. Rubin concludes, “We are seeing a widespread shift in Democrats’ favor virtually across the board. Whether it will be enough to save Democrats’ majorities in the midterms is far from clear, but the expected red wave looks as if it’s circling the drain.”

To be sure, Republicans are still favored to take the House, although not the Senate. But their chances have been decreasing as the election draws closer. In mid-July, FiveThirtyEight predicted that the Republicans had a 88 percent chance of taking the House. That has been trending downward and now stands at 74 percent. The shift in the Senate is more dramatic. In the beginning of June, FiveThirtyEight predicted that the Republicans had a 60 percent chance of taking over the Senate. That has so dramatically changed that Republicans now have only a 30 percent chance.

As with all political trends, the Democratic Party’s rebound is caused by a multitude of factors that are difficult to disentangle. Important external causes include inflation going down, Trump returning to the news thanks to the FBI investigation into his alleged theft of classified documents, and the GOP being burdened by an assortment of very unpopular Trump-backed candidates (Blake Masters, J.D. Vance, Mehmet Oz).

But the most-cited factor is also almost certainly the most important: The Dobbs decision is energizing pro-choice voters, who have always been the majority in most states. The Biden administration was initially caught flat-footed by the court’s radical move, even though it was long expected. But thanks to activist pressure, Biden—going against his own history of waffling on reproductive rights—started speaking out forthrightly on abortion, accentuating the differences between the two parties.

The key point to understand is that it wasn’t just Dobbs alone but the decision of Democrats to fight back on Dobbs that changed the dynamics of the Democratic Party. For much of his presidency, Biden has tried to govern as a bipartisan unifier. And he has had success in passing bipartisan bills on guns and infrastructure spending.

But Dobbs and the continued extremism of the Republican Party with Trump as its figurehead have forced Biden and other centrist Democrats to embrace their inner partisan warrior. Faced with a Republican Party that has shown its willingness to break with fundamental norms like Supreme Court precedent and election integrity, Biden has shifted from working across the aisle to making arguments about the core differences between the two parties.

As Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. notes, “President Biden and the Democrats are running a markedly more progressive and partisan campaign than they did in 2018 and 2020. They are casting Republican officials as radical and anti-democratic, and they’re embracing liberal priorities like gun control, abortion rights and getting rid of the Senate filibuster.”

On a policy level, this abandonment of bipartisanship can be seen in Biden’s embrace of student debt relief, a measure carried out unilaterally by the president. It’s a policy that pleases Biden’s Democratic base and angers Republicans. On a rhetorical level, nothing could be less bipartisan than Biden’s accusation that MAGA Republicans are semi-fascist.

This new, more partisan Biden has implications well beyond the outcome of the midterms. If the Republicans win the House, he won’t be able to easily revert to Clintonian triangulations: After all, Republicans are not likely to work with someone who accused a significant chunk of their party of being semi-fascist. And if Democrats defy history and hold the House and expand the Senate, Biden will have a mandate for a much bolder second half of his first term. Usually presidents exhaust themselves after the first two years and then play defense. But there’s a real—and welcome—possibility that the Biden administration could have a different trajectory.

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