Republicans have gained ground in recent polls with the November midterms less than three weeks away. A New York Times/Siena College survey released this week found that 49 percent of likely voters planned to vote for a Republican in Congress, while 45 percent said they would back a Democrat. Those numbers are rounded, so the GOP's actual edge is just over 3 percentage points — but that's still a big enough shift to give Republicans hope that a so-called red wave will give them a solid majority in the House, and possibly a narrow one in the Senate.
Just weeks ago, Democrats appeared poised to escape the usual midterm losses for the party in the White House. They were strong favorites to keep control in the Senate. They were still underdogs in the fight for control of the House, but appeared likely to at least keep the GOP from winning a strong majority. But then inflation data came in hotter than expected, and major oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, agreed to cut output to prop up prices, threatening to push gas prices higher in the last weeks of the campaign. President Biden pledged to propose a bill to restore nationwide abortion rights lost when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, provided Democrats increase their majorities in Congress. But with the economy, which is the focus of most Republican candidates, now dominating more voters' minds, is the red wave back, and unstoppable?
The red wave is back on
"The Republican Party is on the cusp of a substantial midterm election victory that could rival their wins in 1994 and 2010," say Douglas Schoen and Andrew Stein in The Wall Street Journal. There has been a significant swing of 3 percentage points in generic-ballot polling in the last month, with Republicans now up by 1.8 points after Democrats led by 1.3 in September, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Republicans need just one seat to take control of the 50-50 Senate, and RealClearPolitics has them flipping two. Even if they sweep the 38 House seats rated as toss-ups, Democrats are likely to lose the House.
And "historical trends" make the picture even darker for Democrats. "In midterm elections since 1982, generic polling averages in the weeks leading up to the election have overestimated the president's party's vote margin by an average of 3.5 points, according to FiveThirtyEight. When the president was a Democrat (in 1994, 1998, 2010, and 2014), the overestimate averaged 8.6 points." Also, President Biden's low approval rating (42 percent) is similar to Bill Clinton's in September 1994 (42 percent) and Barack Obama's in September 2010 (45 percent). Republicans won big in those years, so if history is any guide, the GOP wave could be back on.
Democrats shouldn't give up hope
"It's quite late in the game," says Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, but there is still time for Democrats to regain the momentum. The White House made a good start by "upping its Roe and Reform promise," but Biden needs to say precisely how many seats Democrats must win to get a law restoring Roe's abortion rights. Ten House seats? Two? Biden needs to make the goal concrete so "Georgia voters know it's in their hand in the Warnock-Walker Senate race," one of several too-close-to-call races that could decide the Senate. Specifics could help boost turnout in those toss-up House districts, too.
The majority of Americans agree with Democrats' positions on most of the critical issues facing the nation today, says Perry Bacon Jr. in The Washington Post, including stricter gun laws, the right to an abortion, higher taxes on the wealthy, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and free public college. And the "Democratic Party is very representative of the broader nation." But "many of the party's leaders have not risen to the moment of aggressively fighting Trumpism or of trying to create the more equal America that the millions who attended the Floyd protests throughout the country were demanding." And being "on the right side of the issues" isn't always enough. There might not be "enough Democrats to guarantee the defeat of Trumpism" in November.
Economic problems put Republicans back on top
Nothing was going right for Democrats in spring and early summer, says Ed Kilgore at New York's Intelligencer. Then the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade "raised the stakes for many abortion-rights supporters." Then the Democratic-led Congress passed some significant bills, "then gasoline prices dropped." And suddenly people stopped talking about the "enthusiasm gap" that was supposed to fuel a red wave, and Democrats appeared likely to hold onto the Senate and battle to something close to a draw in the Senate.
Now "economic reality" has tipped the scales again. "I'm not one of those political observers who believes it's always 'the economy, stupid' that matters most. Indeed, you can make a very strong argument that cultural issues have mattered most in recent elections." But this isn't a garden variety economic crisis. The United States is facing "a once-in-a-generation rate of inflation and terrible stock-market trends now compounded by recession fears." A "stagflation" crisis is looming. "And with early voting underway, time is running out for any sunny new trend that dispels the economic jitters."
Everything depends on the news between now and Election Day
The shifting polls don't "mean public concerns about abortion policy or GOP extremism have gone away," says Charlie Cook at The Cook Political Report. In a typical midterm election, "those in or leaning toward the party of a sitting president are lethargic, complacent, or at least a little disappointed, and less likely to vote in the general election." That was true until early summer, but the abortion issue got many Democrats fired up, and their party is "now just as motivated as Republicans," according to a Fox News poll released this week.
The nation's "extreme partisan polarization" means there are few "'true independents,' ones who do not identify with or even lean toward either party," and fewer people willing to "split tickets." That means the question of whether there will be a red wave or not comes down to those few dozen toss-ups for the House, where the real question is merely how big the GOP majority will be, and a handful of Senate races that could still go either way (Nevada and Ohio are the closest, followed by North Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Pennsylvania). "Voters are deeply conflicted this year. Watch for that last gust of wind: Whichever way it goes can make a huge difference in so many of these really close races."