Happy Labor Day! It’s that time of year to remember that if you enjoy the weekend, thank the labor movement. If you believe in the 40-hour work week and overtime pay, thank the labor movement. If you are glad we have child labor laws, thank the labor movement. If you believe in worker’s compensation, thank the labor movement. If you support worker safety, thank the labor movement.
It’s also that time of year when political campaigns get started in earnest. While campaigns have been running ads and sending mail for weeks, the general public is just beginning to tune in. Smart campaigns have spent the past few months raising money and talking to opinion leaders and activists across their district or state. Now, they will begin to engage those less involved, and often less informed, voters who will decide the election. So it’s time to take the temperature of the political environment.
For most of the past year, Republicans have been sensing a red wave that would give them control of both Houses of Congress and wash GOP candidates into office down the ballot. But this summer all of that changed. The tipping point seemed to be the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v Wade, opening the door for states to ban abortions. The Democratic base suddenly had something to be mad about besides Joe Biden and the party had something to vote against—Republicans who support banning abortions.
In addition, Democrats had a string of legislative successes throughout the summer. In June, they passed the first gun control legislation in decades and they had bipartisan support, helping fulfill Joe Biden’s pledge that he would bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass bills. Next, they passed the CHIPS and Science Act to increase domestic production of computer chips, again with bipartisan support. Then, in a surprise move, they revitalized their budget bill, renamed it the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, and passed it through the reconciliation process. Finally, Biden kept his promise and gave people student debt relief.
At the same time, Trump’s place got raided. The FBI confiscated top-secret documents that the former president refused to hand over. We still don’t know why he was keeping them. We also keep learning more and more disturbing news, like empty folders labeled classified and nefarious people visiting the former president at Mar-a-Lago.
Electorally, Democrats have seen signs that their lot has improved, too. In Kansas, a wave of women voters crushed a referendum to remove the right to an abortion from the state’s constitution. In New York, a Democrat won a special election that almost certainly would have gone to the Republican if a red wave was really forming. Democratic data guru Tom Bonier wrote an op-ed this week saying that women were outpacing men in new voter registrations by margins never seen before.
All of those indicators point to a vastly improved political environment for Democrats. However, current polling should temper Democrats’ expectations. An NBC poll last week claimed the “midterms have entered uncharted territory,” but a look at the poll, instead of the analysis, indicates that Republicans still have a lot going for them. Biden’s job approval rating is underwater by double digits. Almost three-quarters of the voters think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Republicans have a two-point edge in the Congressional generic ballot. All of these metrics indicate that Republicans are heading into the election in a strong position.
The NBC poll says we’re in uncharted territory because Democrats have drawn even with Republicans in enthusiasm. “Threats to democracy” is now the number one issue, replacing cost of living. And, finally, a majority of people believe the Trump investigations should continue.
All of these indicators are vague at best. Enthusiasm has always been difficult to quantify and a lot of Republicans believe Democrats are a threat to democracy. Most of the people who stormed the Capitol believed they were saving democracy, not destroying it. Finally, just because a person supports continuing to investigate Trump doesn’t indicate that they support Democrats. If it did, Democrats would have been winning the Congressional ballot question.
I would argue that we start the election season at a dead heat. Democrats certainly have the momentum going into September. They won the summer, especially August, but that doesn’t guarantee they can continue to win September and, most importantly, October. All the progress they’ve made so far just raised them from the depths of their political deficit that began last summer with the collapse of Build Back Better and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Republicans certainly have some challenges. Trump still dominates the party and is even more unpopular than Biden. He’s taken over the GOP and is hoarding money that should have been going into the coffers of the national party or individual campaigns. They’ve nominated a lot of eccentric candidates that bring back memories of 2010 and 2012 when candidate quality kept the GOP from taking control of the Senate. Finally, there’s infighting within the GOP Senate over strategy, tactics, and competence.
Still, voters are fickle creatures. They can change directions on a whim and seemingly irrelevant issues can cause big turns in fortune. In 2014, ISIS videos and the imaginary threat of an Ebola epidemic shifted the political environment sharply against Obama and the Democrats during September and October.
While threats of a red wave may have receded, the fundamentals still favor Republicans. People are dissatisfied with the party in power. They’ve paid far less attention to Democratic victories over the summer than the party would have hoped, partly because Democrats do a poor job of touting them and partly because a lot of people just aren’t that engaged. If those voters fall back into their normal patterns like they usually do, Republicans will have a decent night in November.
Democrats need to hope they can build on the momentum they’ve gained. If the women Bonier discussed continue to register and then actually vote, they can upend normal voting patterns. A raft of young women in the polls will signal that Democrats could beat the odds. In addition, if Republicans continue to gravitate toward Trump and his extremism, they could alienate the middle. Still, a good election night for Democrats would be holding the U.S. Senate and while only losing the House by single digits. An historic night for Democrats would be to hold the status quo in Congress and pick up some gubernatorial seats and some state legislatures, but, right now, that’s just wishful thinking.
Today, the starting bell sounds. The two parties are at roughly parity with very different challenges. Democrats need to hope the political environment holds and that their momentum continues to build. Republicans need to hope that something disrupts the environment and that they can fix some of their organizational challenges in short order. Let the race begin.