The big question going into the 2022 midterm election is whether the Democrats, currently in control of the White House and Congress, can avoid the electoral dubbing that basic political conditions portend. Although midterms usually cost the president’s party seats in Congress, the extent of the damage varies widely, with seat swings ranging from +8 to -64 in the House (average, -27), and +3 to -13 in the Senate (average, -4) over the 19 postwar midterms. Studies analyzing these variations have found that, in aggregate, voters usually treat the midterm as a referendum on the president and his management of the economy. The more popular the president and the better economic conditions, the fewer seats the president’s party loses. Statistical models using as predictors the president’s most recent job approval ratings and real income growth during the election year, along with the president’s party’s current strength in Congress (the fewer seats it holds, the fewer it has to lose), can account for midterm seat swings with considerable accuracy. For example, applying such a model to 2018, when President Donald Trump’s approval stood at 40 percent and real income growth at 2.1 percent, Republicans should have ended up with 41 fewer House seats than they held after the 2016 election—improbably, the precise outcome.
If this model is as on target in 2022, the Democrats stand to lose about 45 House seats, giving the Republicans a 258-177 majority, their largest since the 1920s. For multiple reasons (e.g., inflation, the broken immigration system, the humiliating exit from Afghanistan) Biden’s approval ratings have been in the low 40s for the entire year. High inflation has led to negative real income growth despite a strong labor market. The Democrats have no large surplus of seats to defend, but their current House majority is a precarious 220-212 (with 3 vacancies) and the Senate is tied, 50-50. No wonder the consensus expectation at the beginning of the year was an electoral tsunami that would put Republicans in solid control of both chambers.
This consensus no longer prevails. Republicans are still expected to win the House, but by a considerably narrower margin. Democrats now given about a 30 percent chance of retaining control and are actually favored to hold the Senate. These revised expectations are a response to extensive pre-election polling. Despite Biden’s low ratings and economic discontent, Democrats have typically run ahead of Republicans in national surveys asking voters which party’s House candidate they prefer, and statewide surveys have put the Democrat ahead in enough races to make the party a slight favorite to keep their Senate majority.
The Democrats’ advantage in the generic Houses polls opens a wide gap between presidential approval and voting intentions, with the Democrats’ support on average 10.6 percentage points higher than Biden’s approval ratings (Table 1); in 2018, the comparable gap for the Republicans and Trump was only 4 points, more typical of years with major losses for the president’s party. Among both Democratic and independent voters, support for Democratic candidates is 17 points higher than Biden’s approval ratings, and the gaps are even larger if the comparison is to Biden’s rating on managing the economy.
On this evidence, widespread unhappiness with Biden and the economy has dimmed the Democrats’ electoral prospects far less than might be expected. Why? Part of the explanation is evident in the table: Partisans of both parties report extremely high levels of party loyalty in these surveys, with more than 96 percent opting for their own party’s candidate. Most self-identified independents also lean toward one of the parties, and those who do are just as loyal as self-identified partisans. Party-line voting has been increasing for several decades, reaching the 96 percent mark in 2020. This upward trend reflects a rise in negative partisanship—growing dislike for the other party—rather than increasing regard for the voter’s own side. Partisan antipathies keep the vast majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents from voting for Republican candidates regardless of their opinions of Biden and the economy.
The question is whether they will bother showing up to vote for Democrats. Extreme levels of party loyalty make voter turnout, comparatively low and highly variable in the U.S., critically important. The Democrats’ House gains in 2018 emerged from a huge surge in participation by their partisans, inspired by intense antipathy toward Trump, which more than offset the enthusiasm of Trump’s own supporters in an election that featured the highest midterm turnout in more than a century. Early in 2022, it seemed likely that economic malaise and disappointment with Biden would dampen Democrats’ interest in voting, but they were offered fresh motivation in June when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending a half-century of constitutional protections for abortion rights. Ordinary Democrats are overwhelmingly pro-choice (as are most independents), and most have been appalled by the Court’s decision. With abortion rights now under threat by Republicans in Congress and half of the state legislatures, the incentive to be heard at the polls on the issue may offset conditions discouraging voting.
Republican strategists understandably want to frame the election a straightforward referendum on Biden and the economy, and the emergence of abortion as an issue clearly undermines this effort. So, to an even greater extent, does Donald Trump’s continuing pursuit of vindication and revenge. Trump has kept himself in the public eye since losing the 2020 election by tirelessly promoting the big lie that the Democrats stole it from him, railing against Republicans who admit Biden’s election was legitimate and meddling in Republican primaries with endorsements and campaign money for big lie proponents. His efforts have saddled the Republicans with several seriously flawed Senate candidates in competitive states, the reason oddsmakers currently give Democrats an edge in the battle for Senate control. The House investigation of the January 6, 2021, Capitol invasion aimed at stopping certification of Biden’s victory has also focused media attention on Trump, highlighting his role in provoking the mob and his complicity in other schemes to nullify the election. The August FBI raid on Trump’s Florida estate to recover documents, some highly classified, he had stashed there illegally has kept him in the headlines as well. Nothing exposed by the committee, or the FBI raid, has shaken Trump’s Republican supporters, but their revelations may inspire people who flocked to the polls in 2020 to vote Trump out to take another stand against his malevolent influence by voting against his Republican apologists in 2022. Insofar as the election becomes a referendum on Trump rather than Biden, the Democrats benefit. Although Trump remains very popular among Republican voters, he is very unpopular among the broader electorate, and his ability to mobilize his MAGA supporters has in the past been exceeded only by his ability to mobilize his Democratic opponents.
The basic question for 2022, then, is how far a focus on abortion rights or Trump’s attempted coup and other antics can offset fundamentals that look so ominous for the Democrats. Discounting the fundamentals is always a risky bet, and if the Democrats do manage to separate their electoral fates from Biden and the economy far enough to avoid a House rout and loss of the Senate, it will represent a major departure from recent patterns. To the degree they succeed, they can thank Trump and his Supreme Court appointees.
 Improbable, because the standard error of the estimate for the model is +/- 13 seats; see Gary C Jacobson, “Extreme Referendum: Donald Trump and the 2018 Midterm Elections.” Political Science Quarterly 134 (Spring, 2019): 1-30.
 See the data and analyses at https://fivethirtyeight.com/. Survey data on prospective voting must be interpreted cautiously, for comparable polls overestimated the Democrats’ support in 2020 because their samples seriously underrepresented Republicans and Trump supporters, but many pollsters have apparently adjusted their sample weighing to avoid repeating that mistake. We’ll soon see how successful they were.