There are two very important groups to watch in this upcoming midterm election. One is independent voters. In the last four midterm elections, independents had soured on the sitting president's performance and preferred the 'out' party by double digits. In all four of those elections, the party in the White House lost the House, the Senate or both.
The other group to pay attention to is Democratic base voters, especially younger voters and voters of color who turned out for the first time in 2018 and 2020. Many of these so-called "surge" voters were motivated by an aversion Donald Trump, and the racial justice protests over the summer of 2020. Democrats need these voters to show up again in 2022.
Today, Democrats are struggling with both of these groups.
Among independent voters, Gallup polling shows Biden has lost a lot of ground. Back in April, 58 percent of independent voters approved of the job Biden was doing as president. That number has been steadily dropping ever since. Biden's approval rating with independent voters now sits at a dismal 37 percent.
There's also been empirical and anecdotal evidence of a decided drop in enthusiasm among younger voters and voters of color. A recent Pew Research survey found that while Biden's overall job approval had slipped, some of the biggest drops in support came from young voters (-14) and Black voters (-18).
Terrance Woodbury, founding partner and chief executive officer of HIT Strategies, a firm focused on people of color and millennials, isn't particularly surprised by the lack of enthusiasm among Black voters, especially younger Black voters.
"They are very unimpressed with what they are seeing so far from Democrats," Woodbury told me. "They are aware that they are the reason Democrats are in power. That [awareness] comes with a level of expectation and Democrats aren't rising to that occasion."
This frustration among Black voters — especially younger Black voters — with the Democratic party isn't new. It's what led many younger voters of color to stay home or vote third party in 2016. And, it's what helped Donald Trump pick up support from Black voters, especially men, in 2020.
It was Woodbury's 2016 experience in particular, that led him to conclude that the party establishment was "getting young people and voters of color wrong." In post-election research that year, Woodbury found that these voters did not regret their third party vote or their decision to sit out the election. Instead, he said, they made a very conscious and choice to send a message to the Democratic Party. "They wanted disruption," said Woodbury.
Instead, of disruption, however, what many of these voters are seeing is more of the same. "I'm tired," said a Florida woman in a focus group organized by HIT Strategies of younger, Black surge voters, "of Black people being killed by police." Another younger man in this group from Minnesota was frustrated by the lack of follow-through on promises made on the campaign trail. Politicians "only care about us when they are up for election," he said. "They disappear when they are elected."
Even older (35+) and more habitual Black voters (those who have voted in the last four elections) described themselves as "discouraged," "pessimistic," and "very concerned" about things in the country today.
Black voters propelled Biden to victory in places like Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three states that will be pivotal again in 2022. So, getting these Black voters (re)engaged and (re)enthused is going to be critical for Democrats' ability to hold the Senate.
Many Democrats believe that passing their two massive pieces of legislation — the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better plan — as quickly as possible will be the key in getting these folks out to vote in 2022. The sooner that happens, goes the theory, the sooner Democratic incumbents will be able to show how they've delivered real, tangible benefits like child tax credits, expanded broadband, and more robust health care subsidies.
But, Woodbury argues that Democrats can't afford to wait until next year to sell less-engaged Black voters on how/why their elected representatives have delivered for them. Democrats, said Woodbury, "are actually making progress on things that matter to them, they just don't know about it." In other words, stop focusing on what you haven't yet accomplished, and spend more time telling people what you've already done for them. He wants to see Democrats spend as much money telling these voters why their vote to put Democrats in charge mattered as they spent in 2020 bombarding them with texts telling them to vote.
For example, Woodbury argues that Democrats should be talking up the Department of Justice's work in banning no-knock entries and chokeholds by federal agents. Text voters directly and let them know how many free COVID vaccines and test kits have been delivered in their community and help connect them with those same resources.
Woodbury also worries that not connecting with these voters today will only give Republicans more opportunities to siphon them away in the future. The Trump campaign flooded social media with messages that played up the frustration and cynicism these voters already have about the Democratic Party. "We have to talk to them because someone already is."
Turning out less-engaged voters in a midterm year is always a struggle. These voters pay little attention to politics in the first place. They pay even less attention when the White House isn't at stake. Even a robust messaging and marketing program of the size and scale Woodbury proposes is unlikely to move the needle in 2022. But, Woodbury's research has uncovered a more fundamental challenge for Democrats. For the last 12 years, two people — Barack Obama and Donald Trump — have been the animating forces engaging Democratic voters; one motivated with hope, the other fear. But, they can't rely on them for much longer. Instead, Democrats need to show their most loyal voters that they've delivered on the issues most important to their lives, not just the legislation that is taking up so much of the political capital and oxygen in Washington.