AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
It is now April of 2022, and in less than 7 months, American voters will go to the polls to elect 36 governors, 35 Senators, and all 435 members of the House of Representatives. With time running out, and Joe Biden’s approval ratings not only failing to improve, but actually falling, the question is increasingly turning to not whether there will be a Republican wave, but just how large it will be. If the numbers are anywhere near accurate, the answer may well be something unprecedented in recent memory. A look at polling in April, final poll numbers, and actual results from recent election cycles proves instructive:
|Cycle||Polls in April||Final Average||Result|
What can we infer from the above pattern? First, the current GOP leads are not unprecedented for April of an election year, but they are the first time Republicans have led in the generic ballot for Congress since 2012, and the margin of 3.3% is greater than that at this time in both 2012 and 2010. Of course, in 2012, Democrats staged a comeback which saw not only Barack Obama defeat Mitt Romney in the presidential race, but Democrats narrowly win the popular vote for the U.S. House of Representatives, even if they failed to win a majority. 2010, on the other hand, saw a GOP landslide gain of 63 seats.
This brings up another observation. Generally, the party with momentum in April continued to gain strength over the course of the year, while the party in trouble continued to lose support. Republicans were stronger in November than they were in April in 2010, 2014, 2016, and 2020. Democrats showed the same pattern in 2012 and 2018.
Democrats, desperate for any scrap of hope they can latch onto, will rush to embrace the comparison with 2012 as evidence that, despite current polling numbers, they may not be doomed. That may be true if, like Obama, Joe Biden is able to bring his approval rating back up to 51% by election day. But that is not really a revelation. If Joe Biden’s approval rating was 51% rather than the 41% it is now, it is possible the Democrats would even be ahead. What should be more worrying for Democrats was that even with their best candidate of the last 20 years running what was probably one of the best Presidential campaigns of the period against Mitt Romney, Obama was only able to turn a 2.8% deficit for House Democrats into a 1.2% lead, which was not enough for the party to win a majority.
In 2022, Democrats are starting from an even worse position (a 3.3% deficit versus a 2.8% one). As a result, repeating Obama’s achievement would only get them to a .7% popular vote victory, which would still almost certainly produce a Republican House majority. In fact, given the new redistricting maps, it would likely result in something like a 227-208 majority – and that is the absolute best historic case for Democrats.
It is also not a probable scenario. Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, something that should have been established in 2020 when, rather than increasing his lead during the campaign, he was out-campaigned and out-worked by a COVID-afflicted Donald Trump. So far, Joe Biden’s numbers have only moved in one direction since his inauguration – down. Neither the end of COVID restrictions (and the administration continues to resist lifting mask requirements for airports and trains) nor the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has reversed this slide. With rising concern over parental rights in schools and a summer of pent-up demand for gas, it is unclear where exactly any rebound for Biden will come from. Hence the most probable scenario is not that Democrats will recover from their current position but that they will fall further.
The question then is: how far does history indicate they are likely to fall? The closest numbers to April 2022 are those from April 2010, when Republicans led the generic ballot by 3.2% compared with 3.3% now. That lead went on to grow to 9.4% in the final polls and a 6.8% result on election day. The gap between the final polls and election day is indicative of the effect of incumbency. Democrats went into 2010 with a lot of longtime incumbents who overperformed even as they were losing, such as Gene Taylor in Mississippi, who lost by 4% in a district McCain had won 69% of the vote in. Democrats have far fewer of those incumbents in 2022, not least because a number already lost reelection in 2020 when Democrats lost seats in Charleston, South Carolina, and Oklahoma City. In turn, Democrats are starting from a lower baseline (222 seats in 2022 v. 256 seats in 2010), meaning a loss of 63 seats is much less likely.
Ultimately, however, the 2010 comparison makes sense. The dynamics were set in stone by April of 2010. Obama’s agenda had either passed in a mutilated form, as with Obamacare or failed following Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. All that remained was for Democrats to pray that things would turn around, and they didn’t. For this reason, it is plausible the current 3.3% lead in April of 2022 will grow to 8-9% in the polls by November and produce a 7%-8% GOP victory result.
The other two possible comparisons are 2014 and 2016. In 2014, Democrats actually led at this point, by 2.5%, only to see that erode until they eventually lost by 5.7%. In 2016, a similar 2.3% lead turned into a 1.1% deficit. The latter would suggest a 7% or so GOP lead in November if applied this year, while the 2014 example would produce a whopping 11.5% margin.
While something around a 7% margin seems most probable, not least because it would match up with Republican margins in 2010 (6.8%) and 2014 (5.7%), the 11.5% one would be historic. Only once in 46 years has a party achieved a 10%+ margin, Democrats in 2008 (10.6%). Republicans have not achieved that margin since the 1920s.
While a 7% margin would be enough for Republicans to win a large House majority, take the Senate, and probably win governorships in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada, as well as hold onto Georgia and Arizona, it is difficult to imagine what an 11.5% margin would look like. It might well see Democrats reduced to just 12 governorships, and could even see New York in play. Republicans would probably win Connecticut and Oregon along with New Mexico.
Is that possible? The odds are on a 6-7% margin as in 2010 and 2014, but there are reasons to believe the trajectory of 2022 more closely mirrors 2014 than it does 2010 or 2016. Both 2010 and 2016 saw polarized races between Democrats who had enraged silent majorities (the Tea Party movement in 2010, and MAGA in 2016) and that mobilization caused unprecedented turnout for Republican candidates. But Democratic support did not collapse. Obama, for all his failures, retained the core support of 45% of the public even at his lowest points in 2010. More Republicans voted, but Democrats still voted.
Something different happened in 2014. Turnout was low. A mere 36.5% of registered voters turned out. The 40 million votes Republican candidates received in 2014 were, in fact, 10% less than the 45 million they won in 2010. But Democrats fell from 39 million votes in 2010 to 36 million in 2014. In effect, rather than Republicans being mobilized and Democrats demoralized or vice versa, both parties, were demoralized. This is even more dramatic when compared to 2018, when both parties were motivated, and Republicans increased their vote total from 40 million in 2014 to 51 million in 2018, only losing because Democrats increased theirs from 36 million to 61 million.
What if, however, there were an election where Republicans were mobilized, even to just a 2018 level, but Democrats were demoralized to a 2014 one? Even assuming Democrats manage a vote total 15% above their 2014 total and Republicans only match 2018, the result would be a Republican lead of 51 to 41 million votes or 55.5%-44.5%. That would produce almost exactly the 11.5% scenario discussed above.
While perhaps unprecedented, all current signs point to Democratic demoralization. Build Back Better is dead. Student loan relief has not happened. Democrats are at odds with each other. Biden is fading. Harris is uninspiring and busy feuding with Buttigieg. Democrats on the left demonize Manchin and Sinema. Moderates attack AOC. Why should any vote?
All the ingredients are present for a historic landslide. And the only thing Democrats seem to be doing to avert it is praying.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.