According to the Gallup Institute, 56% of Americans disapprove of the work that US President Joe Biden is doing. About 80% say the country is on the wrong track, 82% say the state of the economy is “average” or “weak” and 67% think it’s only getting worse.
Midterms (parliamentary elections in the middle of the presidential term) are normally negative for the president’s party. But imagine a midterm amid this level of disappointment with the president and the party? It should be cataclysmic.
However, that’s not what the election looks like, at least for now. The prediction by website FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a one-in-three chance of retaining control of the House and a two-in-three chance of retaining control of the Senate. Other predictions follow a similar line, and betting markets, ditto.
Perhaps the polls, where the margins have narrowed a little, are underestimating the participation of Republican voters. We’ve seen this before and, worryingly for Democrats, in some of the states where they most need to win. But even a strong Republican performance would be a far cry from the ruling party’s crushing defeats seen in 1994, 2010 and 2018. It’s worth asking why.
Let’s start with the seats that the parties have now. Only seven Democrats have won in districts where Donald Trump won in 2020. Democrats are not defending many of the seats they switched sides that led to massive defeats in 2010 and 1994. On the other hand, the Senate map looks pretty good. for Democrats, with Republicans defending more seats.
And, of course, there’s the Dobbs action decision. [que reverteu o direito constitucional ao aborto], which has led to an increase in interest in Democratic candidates and the number of young women registering to vote. All the candidates, strategists and analysts I spoke to, from both parties, believe the case changed the face of the election. What they are trying to understand is whether this energy is losing strength with the passing of the months and the approach of the election.
But there is something else that is distorting the dispute: Biden’s relative absence and Trump’s unusual presence.
Here’s a strange fact: since July, Google searches for “Trump” have surpassed those for “Biden.” During the same phase in 2018, Trump was way ahead of Barack Obama in the number of searches, and in 2010, Obama was ahead of George W. Bush. This is what usually happens: midterms are a referendum on the president; the deposed or retired predecessor rarely has much of a presence. But this one is different.
Trump’s constant and never-ending presence in politics comes from a few sources. One of them is, well, Trump. He never stops talking, cursing, complaining, coaxing, teasing. He is publicly preparing for a campaign in 2024. As I was writing this, I received an email from “Donald J. Trump” titled “Corrupt News Network” announcing that Trump is suing CNN for defamation. This is not a guy who is trying to stay out of the news.
And we have the unusual consequences of the Trump administration that reverberate in our politics. The investigation into January 6 continues, and the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago to recover documents that Trump allegedly took improperly. The Republican, for his part, recently told Sean Hannity that the president can remove documents from the classified category “just by thinking about it.” Aiaiai…
Trump is also responsible for some of the mediocre candidates who are causing trouble for Republicans. He promoted JD Vance in Ohio, Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. All are having lower than expected results in their respective disputes. In a speech he gave to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Mitch McConnell admitted that Republicans might not see the Senate and bluntly remarked, “The outcome has a lot to do with the quality of the candidates.”
But Trump’s efforts to stay in the news are matched by Biden’s efforts to stay out of it. The president gives astonishingly few interviews. He doesn’t make attention-grabbing gestures or tweets that generate a lot of repercussion. I’m not always sure whether this is out of strategy or necessity: it’s unclear whether Biden’s team trusts him to be able to make one-on-one conversations or interviews benefit him. But perhaps the difference is not the case: a good strategy is sometimes born of an unwanted reality.
Biden just doesn’t take up much space in political discourse. He is a far less central, controversial and flashy figure than Trump, Obama or Bush were. Biden has surprisingly accomplished a lot in recent months, but once he’s done something he fades back into the background.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t do anything. He rules. This past week, he overturned all federal convictions for possession of marijuana. Prior to that, he canceled hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt (although there are legal and administrative issues with this plan). He signed the Inflation Reduction Act. But then he goes on to the next subject; he is not interested in taking your public policy ideas and converting them into culture wars.
Biden did not win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination because he was the most thought-provoking candidate or had throngs of staunch supporters. The argument most often made in his favor was that other people would find him acceptable. And it proved to be the case.
Biden managed to assemble an unusually broad coalition of people who feared Trump and who considered Biden ok. This strategy required discreet action. Many politicians would have stood up to Trump and tried to make the election revolve around them. Biden held back and let Trump make the election about him, Trump.
I suspect this is why Biden’s approval rating is and has been moderate. He appeals to Democrats not so much because he inspires them, but because he seems to be someone who gets things done. You don’t have to love him to support him, you don’t even have to really like him. It is necessary to believe in it as a vehicle to prevent something worse. This still applies today.
What was never clear to me was what Biden and the Democrats would do when Trump was not a candidate — when Biden had to fuel Democratic enthusiasm alone. But Biden is using a strategy surprisingly similar to the one he used in 2020 in 2022, with some evidence of success. He doesn’t try to command the country’s attention day after day. And that has left room for Trump, the Supreme Court and a slew of underwhelming Republican candidates to become the talk of the day and remind Democrats what is at stake in 2022.
I’m too skeptical, after the recent misconceptions in the polls, to think we can take it for granted that this is going to be a good year for the Democrats. Republican victories in the House and Senate will not surprise me.
But it’s worth noting: At this very point in 2010, Republicans were much more excited than Democrats to go to the polls. At this same point in 2018, Democrats were more excited than Republicans. And this year? It’s more or less a tie, with some polls even giving the Democrats a slight edge.
If those numbers hold up and Democrats avoid a crushing defeat in November, Biden will owe Trump a basket of fruit.