inches

A Game of Inches

For the last two years, COVID has upended almost every aspect of our lives. Not since 9/11 has a singular event dominated American life. At the same time, even as Americans gave low marks to then-President Trump for his handling of the pandemic and currently approve of President Biden's job on this issue, it has done little to shake deeply-held partisan opinions of the two leaders.

Many who disapproved of the job Trump did on tackling the health crisis, ended up voting for him in November. And, lots of voters who give Biden a big thumbs up on his handling of the current battle against the virus say they disapprove of the job he's doing as president. 

For example, a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll from October of 2020 found that 59 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump's handling of the pandemic — including a whopping 66 percent of independent voters and 11 percent of Republicans. In November, however, according to the Pew validated voter survey, Trump carried 94 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of independents. In other words, lots of independents and even some Republicans who gave him low marks on the most pressing issue of 2020 ended up supporting him in the fall election. The most recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist survey finds Biden getting high marks on his handling of the pandemic — 64 percent favorable to 31 percent unfavorable. Yet, his overall job approval was 14 points lower at 50 percent. 

The fact that such a big event does little to change perceptions of a president isn't just a Trump or post-Trump phenomenon. Big events in the second half of President Obama's first term, like the killing of Osama bin Laden, had only a marginal impact on the opinions of the president. Once considered the most predictive of a presidential outcome, even the state of the economy has become less salient. President Obama won re-election in 2012 despite a sluggish economy, while President Trump lost re-election even as he held an advantage over Joe Biden on who would best handle the economy. As the New York Times' Alex Burns observed this week, "The president — any president — might be able to chip away at voters' skepticism of his party or their cynicism about Washington, but he cannot engineer a broad realignment in the public mood."

On the one hand, the fact that Biden's perceived strength on the pandemic isn't translating into higher job approval ratings is not great news for Democrats in 2022. The only two times in modern history that the party in the White House has picked up seats in a midterm election saw the sitting president with job approval ratings in the 60's — 10 points higher than where Biden is now. However, it's also true that Biden's 50 percent rating looks a lot better than where Presidents Trump and Obama were sitting in the fall of their first midterm elections, which saw big losses for their party. In other words, a status quo election (a re-run of 2020) could be enough for Democrats to hold onto their narrow majorities. Of the nine most competitive Senate races up in 2022, Biden (narrowly) carried six of them. 

But, while a president's handling of major crisis or the economy may not move numbers in big ways like they once did — it matters on the margins. And, in a country this deeply and closely divided, the margins are where majorities in Congress — and who controls the White House — are won and lost.

So, let's take a look at where things stand on other things that could have both a marginal and decisive impact on the outcome of the 2022 elections. 

Redistricting:

First, there's redistricting. Republicans have a built-in advantage here. In 2021, the GOP will control the remapping process in 20 states with 187 districts, while Democrats will be able to draw the map in 8 states with just 75 districts. Given the immense pressure Republicans are under to win control of the House next year, it'd be fair to assume that Republicans would push for every advantage they could get. But, a recent report from POLITICO's Ally Mutnick suggests that Republicans may take a less aggressive action. 

"Unabashed partisan gerrymandering that was commonplace after 2010 is now giving some Republicans pause," Mutnick writes. "Top party strategists are urging state mapmakers to play it safe and draw lines that can withstand demographic change throughout the decade and lawsuits."

Of course, we also know that state map makers often ignore 'advice' from Washington, DC strategists. Many of them have their own ambitions and priorities. And, in this era of zero-sum politics, when short-term victories are more prized than long-term strategy, it's hard to believe that politicians won't do everything possible to drive their advantage. Moreover, there's a difference in pushing the needle too far and pushing it just far enough. Republican legislators don't need to "crack" — or break up — every urban Democratic district in America in order for the GOP to have enough opportunities to win seats. 

Candidate quality:

Then there's candidate quality. As ticket-splitting has decreased, the quality of the individual candidate has become less important to the outcome of a contest than the partisan make-up of the state and how the presidential candidate of his/her party performed there in the previous election. It wasn't that long ago when a great candidate could beat a mediocre one, even when the partisan lean of the state was not in that candidate's favor. Today, that's become an almost impossible feat, with Senators Joe Manchin and Susan Collins as rare examples. 

Even so, with the Senate divided 50-50, all it takes is one really bad candidate — or one exceptional one — to decide control of that body in 2023. 

As my colleague Jessica Taylor has written, Trump is going to have a big influence on the kind of candidates who make it through the GOP primary process. Given that his choice of a candidate to promote — or denounce — is driven not by political analysis but by how loyal Trump perceives that candidate to be to him, there's a good chance that many GOP Senate candidates will come with liabilities both known and unknown, that will make them vulnerable to defeat. Already, some strong potential candidates who have angered Trump in the past, like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, have taken a pass on running for the Senate.

At the same time, Trump casts a smaller shadow than he did back in 2017-18 when potential candidates and incumbents decided not to run — or announced their retirement — because of how toxic they perceived the Trump brand to be in the midterm election. This year, it's Biden, not Trump in the White House, and those candidates no longer have to answer for the unpredictable and unpopular decisions coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For example, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu — a top-flight recruit for Senate Republicans — would probably have had to think twice about running in a year like 2018. If he runs in 2022, he'd instantly vault that race into one of the best pick-up opportunities for his party in the country. 

At the same time, Biden's solid — though not particularly impressive job approval ratings — also help to encourage Democratic candidates and incumbents to stick around. The fact that Democrats currently don't have to defend any open Senate seats in 2022 is one of those small, but potentially decisive things that can make the difference between Democrats serving in the minority or the majority come 2023. 

With no sign of the political divisions that have characterized these last 10-12 years dissolving, we will continue to have close elections where a small margin will determine the winner/loser. It's like a very boring football game that lacks the flashy 99-yard punt return or the long passes downfield. Instead, the battle is fought over the same 2-3 yards in front of the end zone, where every inch of ground gained or lost matters.