Why Democrats could lose in the midterms

Inflation and the economy are top concerns for the people of the US in the upcoming midterm elections. The Democrats address neither.

October 26, 2022 by Natalia Marques
A Monmouth poll found that inflation was rated as extremely or very important by 82% of people in the US—with only 30% approving of President Joe Biden’s handling of it. (Photo: The White House)

In the upcoming US midterm elections, held on November 8 this year, the people of the US choose representatives for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and a large portion of Senate seats. These elections will decide which party is in control of Congress for the next few years—Republican or Democrat. Currently, the Democratic Party holds a majority in both chambers of Congress. Many worry that the lack of a clear political project that addresses the needs of working people could cause Democrats to crash and burn during the upcoming midterm elections. 

The US is in an economic crisis with soaring inflation making it difficult for working class people to afford gas, groceries, and other necessities. Rents and rates of homelessness have also climbed nationwide, and predictions loom of an upcoming recession. Despite this situation, neither party seems willing to offer any sweeping changes. This can mean that the blame for worsening material conditions will be laid on the party in power—the Democrats.

Polls speak for themselves

According to an October 20 Pew Research report, the economy is the top issue for voters, with 79% stating that it is very important to their voting decisions—the highest percentage out of 18 separate issues. A New York Times/Siena College poll, released on October 17 found that the percentage of voters who listed the economy as the most important concern jumped from 36% to 44% since July, also the highest out of any issue. A Washington Post poll found that 85% of registered voters listed the economy as their top issue. A Monmouth poll found that inflation was rated as extremely or very important by 82% of people in the US—with only 30% approving of President Joe Biden’s handling of it. Gallup poll results differed slightly but the message was still a powerful one: inflation and the economy ranked second and third as the most important problem according to those surveyed, closely following “the government/poor leadership.”

The data sends a clear message that people in the US are most concerned about the economy, particularly the cost of living. Prices of gas, groceries, housing, and healthcare are a major worry at a time when inflation reached 8.2% this year, hitting the worst levels in 40 years.

In this new economic reality, the future looks grim for the Democrats. Gallup found that in the last quarter of 2021, the majority party preference shifted from Democrat to Republican. Since 1991 when Gallup began measuring party leaning, Democrats have usually held the advantage. The New York Times/Siena poll reveals that economic concerns are shifting voters from the Democratic to the Republican party. 

Biden himself has a 38% approval rating, similar to former President Donald Trump’s at this point in his presidency, but lower than other recent presidents.

Democrats fail to deliver transformative program

In the past few decades, the party which controls the presidency has usually lost control of the Congress during the midterms, which come at the midpoint of the presidential term.

But according to Neal Meyer writing in Jacobin, it doesn’t have to be this way. Meyer points out that both Republicans and Democrats were in control of both the Congress and presidency for long stretches of time throughout US history. The Republicans were in power for decades after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ending the institution of slavery, and the Democrats after the sweeping economic reforms in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

What do those periods of one-party stability both have in common? Both were ushered in after massive social changes that permanently shaped US society—changes that were fought for and won by the working class.

However, many say that the Democratic Party seems unwilling to even address the most basic economic concerns of working people, let alone deliver a transformative program.

Biden seems to be choosing an “everything is fine” approach. On October 24, Biden shared what he called his “closing argument” prior to the midterm elections, focusing on attacking Republicans for their economic proposals as “mega-MAGA, trickle-down politics in the extreme” and highlighting the accomplishments of his administration. He did acknowledge inflation, but also bragged that the US has lower inflation rates than most countries—which does not speak to the abysmal material conditions of the majority in the US.

Writing in the American Prospect, four veteran Democratic strategists urged the party leadership to address economic concerns. “Democrats need to understand that we have a winning message on the economy and inflation,” they wrote. Voters “want to know you understand what is going on in their lives.”

The concrete actions of Democrats in the legislature and the executive have also failed to address the economic despair of many voters. Federal unemployment benefits expired for millions under the Democratic majority. Biden’s unprecedented social spending package, “Build Back Better,” which could have allocated $3.5 trillion toward healthcare, public education, and clean energy, was first gutted and then ultimately killed by conservative Democrat Joe Manchin. In the eleventh hour before the midterms, Biden announced a pardon for those convicted of marijuana possession at the federal level. However, not only does this pardon not free anyone from prison, it also falls far short of marijuana decriminalization, which is extremely popular in the US.

Republicans out-strategize Dems

Democrats have used the stripping of abortion rights by conservatives as their primary campaign message. They are arguing that under conservative leadership, politicians will attempt to instate a nationwide abortion ban. This messaging is criticized by many given the fact that Democrats have been given numerous opportunities to enshrine abortion rights into law, and refused.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders argued against this strategy in the Guardian, writing, “while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered.”

Republicans have spent $44 million on campaign advertisements focused on the economy and inflation, Andrew Perez and David Sirota report in The Lever, while Democrats have spent only $12 million on economy-related ads. Republicans, who consistently vote against social spending packages and regulations on corporate greed, also do not have an economic plan that would transform the lives of the people of the US. “Caught between a bad economy and not wanting to offend big donors, Democrats have not aired a unified populist message hammering the business profiteering fueling inflation,” Perez and Sirota write.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost what many view as a winnable election against the erratic and controversial Trump. Trump campaigned on the promise to “Make America Great Again,” a slogan that has lived on well past Trump’s own presidential term. Hillary’s rebuttal slogan, “America is already great,” fell on deaf ears for many who were struggling with healthcare payments, low wages, and being able to afford the basic amenities needed to survive.

Amid the highest inflation in 40 years, the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and the ongoing pandemic, climate catastrophe, and a costly proxy war in Ukraine, maintaining the status quo is no longer an option.