Caroline Leicht

In just a few weeks, Joe Biden will receive the results of perhaps the most important opinion poll of his presidency. When voters across the United States take to the polls to decide who should represent them in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, they are indirectly casting a vote on Biden’s performance as president as well. And the results could not be more important for the president and his fellow Democrats: If Republicans gain control of either chamber, it could bring Biden’s agenda to a crashing halt, a prospect that could have dire consequences for Democrats’ hope to retain control of the White House in 2024.

 

Biden’s Approval Ratings in Decline

 

In the past two decades, the incumbent president’s party has only gained seats in the House in the midterms once. In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush recorded an approval rating of 62% at the time of the midterms and his party gained seats in the House. Since then, incumbent presidents have consistently had more negative than positive ratings at the time of the midterms and their respective parties were not successful in the midterms.

If this pattern holds up, Biden’s Democrats could be facing a challenging Election Day. While Biden enjoyed comfortably positive approval ratings in the early months of his presidency, this is no longer the case. The turning point came at the end of August 2021, his 223rd day in office, when he recorded a higher percentage of disapproval than approval for the first time as president. Since then, Biden has not been able to turn the trend around. In early October, he had a disapproval rating of 51.7% and an approval rating of just 42.6%.

Over the summer, the Biden Administration passed the Inflation Reduction Act, rolled out plans for student debt forgiveness, and most recently announced sweeping pardons for federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. While these news appeared to resonate with the American public, they have done little to nothing to help Biden’s approval ratings. So, is all hope lost for Democrats?

 

The Senate: Spotlight Again on Nevada and Georgia

 

On 8 October, a month before the midterms, the FiveThirtyEight Election Forecast gave Democrats a 67% chance of controlling the Senate with a predicted 51-49 majority. The Senate is currently tied 50-50 with Democrats having the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris on their side. It is a slim majority and one that Democrats are certainly looking to expand in the midterms.

The races in Nevada and Georgia are expected to be particularly tight. In 2020, Nevada was one of the states that took days to report election results. Though Nevada did eventually turn blue on the electoral map, Biden only narrowly clinched the majority in the state (50.1%). Now, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto is facing Republican Adam Paul Laxalt in the midterms to decide the Nevada Senate seat. A month before the midterms, FiveThirtyEight gave Cortez Masto a narrow edge over Laxalt (51% chance of winning), but the race has been getting increasingly close since mid-September.

Georgia was an even closer race two years ago. Biden beat Trump by 0.3%, turning the state blue on the electoral map for the first time since 1992. The Georgia Senate seats were decided in a runoff election in January 2021 and Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won both seats for the Democrats. Warnock is now up for reelection and is facing Trump-backed Herschel Walker, a former NFL player and member of the 1992 US Olympic bobsleigh team. Here, the odds have been slightly tilting in Warnock’s favor in recent weeks and FiveThirtyEight gave the incumbent a 59% chance of winning in early October.

 

The House: Democrats Predicted to Lose Control

 

While the prospects for the Senate thus look somewhat promising for Democrats, the House may be reason for concern. They currently hold a 222-213 majority in the House; however, a month before Election Day, the FiveThirtyEight Election Forecast gave the party only a 30% chance of retaining control of the chamber, predicting a 225-210 majority in the Republicans’ favor.

All hope may not be lost for Biden’s Democrats, though, as the races for the House are currently estimated to be significantly closer than for the Senate. In two California districts (CA-27 and CA-22), Democratic candidates appear to have a chance to defeat the Republican incumbents.

A rather unique case is Alaska’s At-Large District where Democrats are currently predicted to have a 51% chance of winning. Incumbent Mary Peltola (D) was only elected for the seat in a special election in August. At the time, it was a reason to celebrate for the party as Peltola became the first Democrat to win the House seat in the state since 1972. Now, though, the race is tightening again. Peltola’s advantage may be that she is the only Democrat on the ranked choice voting ballot while Republicans have two candidates, Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, competing for the same seat.

 

What Is the American Public Voting For?

 

After the 2020 election, 67% of voters said “being excited to vote against Trump” was a major reason for the results. Only 27% said a major reason was that “Biden ran a better campaign than Trump”. With Biden instead of Trump as the incumbent president during the midterms, this could be bad news for the Democrats. However, a recent survey found that voters are increasingly less likely to say Biden is a factor in their vote this year.

Still, Biden’s negative approval ratings should not be dismissed. In the same survey, disapproval of Biden’s performance as president was found to be linked to being more likely to vote for a Republican candidate in the midterms. In August, the top voting issues for Democrats were health care, abortion and gun policy. These are all topics that were part of Biden’s campaign platform in 2020.

They are also the very topics Republicans and Democrats are most likely to disagree on and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill would be very likely to block any related proposals by the Biden Administration if they gained control of either of the chambers. Losing control of the House or Senate could thus have significant repercussions for Democrats going into 2024 that would extend far beyond Biden’s negative approval ratings.

Author Biography

 

Caroline Leicht is a PhD student in Politics at the University of Southampton and the current Communications Officer of the PSA Early Career Network. She previously covered the 2020 US Presidential Election as a journalist in Germany.