With rising inflation, an ongoing pandemic, a Russian war in Ukraine and now a looming Supreme Court ruling on abortion, the stakes are high as Americans prepare to go to the polls in November for midterm elections.
“I have so many friends who are struggling right now,” said Brandon Legnion, a nurse in New Orleans, Louisiana. “Friends who can barely afford the gas they need to get themselves to job sites. I think a lot of them are going to be eager to vote and express displeasure at the way the country is being run.”
The midterms not only mark the halfway point between the 2020 and 2024 U.S. presidential elections but will set the political direction of the United States, by determining whether Democrats or Republicans will control state houses, as well as whether President Biden will have an agreeable Congress to help enact his agenda.
Historically, the midterm elections have not fared well for the political party of the sitting president, especially when -- like Democratic President Joe Biden -- that president is in their first term in office.
“The question isn’t whether or not the Democrats will lose seats during the midterms,” University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock told VOA. “The question is how many seats they are going to lose.”
The trend of midterms damaging the sitting president’s party is so well known in America that some Democratic voters seem resigned to what is projected to be a difficult election cycle.
“I unfortunately think our country will swing dramatically to the right,” said Julie Bierschenk, a Democratic voter in Chicago, Illinois. “Things have felt so unstable here with the pandemic, and the economy and everything related to racial justice, so I think Republicans will probably win. It’s a predictable never-ending cycle, like a pendulum that swings between the far/moderate left, to the far right.”
The president’s party
Polling data similarly portends disaster for Democrats. A late-April NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that 47% of respondents said they were more likely to vote for the Republican in their district while 44% said they were more likely to vote Democrat.
According to Marist, this is the first time in eight years their survey detected a Republican advantage.
Some Republicans say this advantage is due to what they say is the Democratic Party’s failure to lead the country despite controlling the White House and having slim majorities in Congress.
“Under President Biden, Americans face skyrocketing inflation, insane gas prices, high taxes, and a southern border completely out of control,” said Representative Michelle Steel, a California Republican who is up for re-election in November.
Steel told VOA she expects big wins for her party in this year’s midterms.
“It’s not just Republicans,” she said. “Voters of all backgrounds will be voting Republican this year.”
To her point, the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that independent voters -- an important swing group -- favored Republicans over Democrats 45% to 38%.
Another area of concern among Democrats is President Biden’s struggling approval ratings, which currently stand at just 41% -- similar to former President Donald Trump at this point in his presidency, and below all other recent presidents.
“A president’s approval rating is definitely one factor in how his party fares in elections,” political scientist Bullock explained. “Biden hasn’t been perceived as a very good leader and if his approval rating drops below 40% it’s hard to imagine how Democrats will be able to hold their majorities in Congress.”
In addition to President Biden’s effect on the midterms, some Republican voters like Jill Dani of Florida believe former President Trump’s absence from the ballot will help her preferred party’s chances.
“Biden won in 2020 because Democrats and even some Republicans hated Trump,” she told VOA. “Now they don’t have Trump, so the blame for the economy and our handling of Russia is rightfully being directed at the current president. Immigration is still a mess and inflation is miserable. I think Democrats are in for a big surprise in November and they’re not going to be happy about it.”
“A lot of voters don’t seem to realize that the Democrats’ majority is so slim, Republicans have been able to block much of their agenda with the filibuster,” Bullock said. “Instead, many voters just seem to see Democrats and Biden as ineffective.”
Bullock says some of that perception, however, is self-inflicted.
“Rather than talking about the things they have accomplished, like a large COVID-19 recovery bill and an infrastructure spending package, Democrats and their voters bemoan the stalled Build Back Better Act and the voting rights act that never materialized,” he said. “Combine that with the inflation pain Americans feel every time they go to the supermarket or gas station, and it really puts a target on Democrats’ backs.”
Most Americans say inflation is their top concern. In April, the U.S. Labor Department reported an 8.5% jump in consumer prices, marking the steepest such climb since 1981.
Legnion, an independent voter, said it is hard not to feel this has something to do with the president and his party’s priorities.
“I’ve never experienced inflation like this before,” he said, “and it feels like maybe we should be focusing on fixing this country instead of the government sending money all over the world to help others.”
Six months away
In the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, only 39% of respondents approve of how President Biden is handling the economy. Only 44% approve of how he is dealing with the situation in Ukraine, down 52% from March.
One major issue in which Democrats still have an advantage, however, is in handling the coronavirus. Survey respondents were more likely to trust them over Republicans on this issue by 12 percentage points.
“As a health care worker, I can tell you that Democrats at least portray themselves as more compassionate toward frontline workers, and more concerned about keeping the crisis under control,” Legnion said.
Still, this trust doesn’t appear to be translating to potential votes as the midterm elections near.
“In a lot of peoples’ minds, the pandemic is over,” said Corrine Glazer, a Democratic voter from Los Angeles, California. “If we’re saying things like, ‘Now that we’re out of the pandemic,’ and ‘post-pandemic,’ then of course coronavirus isn’t going to be a priority in this election.”
But, with six months to go until the midterms take place, experts like Bullock warn a great deal can change.
“If a new variant shows up, for example, and brings coronavirus back front and center,” he said, “or if inflation calms down or things change in how Biden’s perceived to be leading in regards to Ukraine, that can affect how the midterm elections play out.”
Bullock said there are other potential positives Democrats can hold onto.
Polling data, he said, seems to be slightly improving for Democrats, for example. And Republicans have more vulnerable Senate seats up for election that they will need to defend.
“And, because Democrats didn’t do as well in the congressional part of the 2020 election, they don’t have as many seats to lose as the president's party normally would in the midterms,” Bullock said. “While it’s almost certain Democrats will lose seats, it might not be as bad as some predict.”
Other issues may still arise to change the trajectory of the race. The recently leaked Supreme Court abortion decision, for example, may galvanize voters.
Already, Democratic politicians are framing the midterm elections as a chance for voters to protect their rights. This message is resonating with some Americans like Glazer.
"These elections represent our best chance to protect marginalized groups," she said. "A Supreme Court with Trump-nominated justices is doing damage that will last for years, like overturning a woman's right to choose. We need to make sure everyone gets out to vote and that everyone's vote is counted so we can protect Democratic majorities in Congress."