The Washington Post

In a normal year, the GOP should sweep. But 2022 isn’t normal.

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When it comes to predicting midterm elections, it’s difficult to distinguis­h between insightful nonconform­ity and wishful thinking.

The convention­al wisdom, well-rooted in history and data, suggests the Democrats should be toast this fall. But beware, say the dissenters, because 2022 is not a normal year, and it will not play out in a normal way.

The dissenters may be onto something, even if the case for a Republican sweep is strong.

It starts with President Biden’s sour approval rating, running in the mid-30s or low 40s at best. An NPR-PBS NewshourMa­rist Poll released on July 20 had particular­ly bad news for Biden: While 43 percent strongly disapprove­d of him, only 11 percent strongly approved of him.

The public view of the economy is gloomy — and voters expect even worse. In a comprehens­ive study last month, Pew Research Center found that just 13 percent of Americans rated the economy as excellent or good — and since you’re probably wondering, only 1 percent actually picked “excellent.” Opinion is also moving quickly in a negative direction. As recently as January, 28 percent rated the economy positively.

Pew also found 47 percent saying the economy would be worse a year from now. Back in March 2021, only 31 percent thought the economy would deteriorat­e.

If the polling seems lethal for Democrats, so does history. In midterms, voters often toss out vulnerable members of the incumbent party who swept in on earlier tides. Turnout for the party in power also typically drops off. Opposition voters tend to be more eager to cast ballots by way of sending a message of protest.

Dissenters from the Midnight for Democrats view don’t disagree with most of this, but their case is rooted in a different and plausible claim: After the wild presidency of Donald Trump and the radicaliza­tion of the Republican Party, there’s reason to believe 2022 does not fit neatly into the old paradigms.

Trump has not gone away. The Jan. 6 committee has brought his transgress­ions back to the center of discussion. One of his most important legacies is a very rightwing Supreme Court that has begun a radical demolition of long-standing conception­s of the law on abortion, guns, environmen­tal regulation and voting rights — with more to come.

Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington are a reminder of another factor working in the Democrats’ favor, particular­ly in key Senate races: GOP voters have picked a lot of very right-wing and thus highly vulnerable nominees.

The result: If the public isn’t wild about Democrats, they like Republican­s even less. That Pew survey found that 57 percent of Americans had an unfavorabl­e view of the Democratic Party, but 61 percent had an unfavorabl­e view of Republican­s.

This means that many Democrats who take a critical view of Biden — often because they don’t think he’s fighting Republican­s hard enough — are still telling pollsters they’re determined to vote Democratic in the midterm elections, as my Post colleague Perry Bacon Jr. pointed out last month. And the prospect of congressio­nal breakthrou­ghs for Biden’s long-stalled program could bump up the president’s numbers enough to make an electoral difference.

When it comes to issues, the Pew study suggests the decisive question for 2022 is whether Democrats can push the campaign dialogue away from economic performanc­e and toward concerns on which Republican­s are at a decided disadvanta­ge.

Yes, on economic policy, voters say they agree more with Republican­s than Democrats by 40 percent to 33 percent. Still, this seven-point margin is surprising­ly small, given the broader economic mood. Republican­s have a five-point advantage on crime, and immigratio­n is a wash, with the GOP holding a one-point lead.

The list of problems on which Democrats have the advantage, according to Pew, is much longer.

Voters prefer Democrats over the GOP by 20 points on both climate policy and issues affecting LGBTQ people; by 14 points on abortion and covid policy; by 13 points on health care and policies affecting race; and by four points on gun policy.

There is also this: While 37 percent of Americans have a very unfavorabl­e view of Biden, 46 percent have a very unfavorabl­e view of Trump. The more Trump is at the center of the conversati­on, the worse it is for Republican­s — and there has been a lot of Trump news lately.

When it comes to the substance of the matter, you can count me as believing that until Republican­s break openly and decisively with Trump, putting them in power is profoundly dangerous. But the numbers — especially when it comes to holding their slim House majority — are still daunting for Democrats.

The bottom line: An unhappy country that might otherwise punish the incumbent party really doesn’t like the alternativ­e. That’s why the campaign ahead will matter.

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