By now you’ve heard it a hundred times: The US president’s party almost always sustains a brutal defeat in the midterm elections, and this November is unlikely to be any different. With President Joe Biden’s approval ratings in the dumps and Democrats in Congress struggling to pass legislation, this year will probably look like 2018, 2014, 2010, 2006 and 1994 — all years when the president’s party got crushed.
But what if this year is one of the exceptions?
This isn’t a prediction; no one can tell you what will happen. But there are at least five big reasons this year could become one we mention alongside 1998 and 2002 — midterms when the president’s party emerged unscathed. Almost all those reasons have to do not with anything brilliant Democrats are doing, but the many ways Republicans are turning voters off.
1. GOP extremism. Right now the GOP is gripped by an ideological extremism born of backlash politics. While that’s just what many Republicans want, it also could alienate voters in the middle and motivate Democrats to vote.
Democrats certainly see this as working to their advantage, which is why many Democratic organisations are intervening in Republican primaries to boost the most extreme candidates, in the hope that they’ll be weaker in the general election.
While a strong argument holds that this is a terrible idea (think of the consequences if those candidates win), it could work. And in many races, Democrats believe focusing on the extremism of their opponents is an effective strategy.
2. Bad Republican candidates. This has been a particular problem in the Senate, where a net gain of just a single seat would win the chamber for Republicans. Despite that opportunity, the party has nominated a number of weak or problematic candidates. No one exemplifies that more than Herschel Walker in Georgia, whose campaign has been a string of embarrassing revelations and comical policy faceplants.
But it’s not just him. Other candidates are underperforming as well, including J.D. Vance in Ohio, whose fund-raising has been weak and who is polling even with Rep. Tim Ryan in a state Donald Trump won by 8 points in 2020. In the end, one or two poor candidates could make the difference.
3. Abortion and the Supreme Court. The court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has not only angered Democrats, but also produced a wave of national news about state-level Republicans devising evermore strongerlaws. Combined with other unpopular court decisions, this could move independent voters away from Republicans while motivating Democrats to turn out.
4. The economy. The most important thing to know about the economy is that as recent history has taught us, no one, not even the best-trained economist, really knows what it will look like a few months from now. The Federal Reserve is poised to continue hiking interest rates, which could produce a recession. On the other hand, job creation has been spectacular during Biden’s presidency.
And the most important weapon Republicans had in bashing the administration — the price of gas — now looks very different than just a month or two ago. The average cost has fallen 69 cents in just the last six weeks, and it may continue to fall. While prices are still high, daily news stories about gas prices have disappeared, which could enable a shift to issues more friendly to Democrats.
5. Donald Trump. It has become clear that Trump intends to run for president in 2024, and the more he’s in the news, the better it could be for Democrats. He lost in 2018, he lost in 2020, and he could help Republicans lose again in 2022.
All those are reasons this election might be different — not reasons it will. But there are indications something unusual is happening this year. Most strikingly, despite Biden’s poor approval ratings, in the House generic ballot matchup, the two parties are essentially even.
One should also remember that exceptions to the midterm rule don’t come in a single form. The two times in recent history that the president’s party avoided defeat were entirely unlike each other. In 1998, voters recoiled from Republicans’ impeachment of Bill Clinton. In 2002 the public was still gripped by the shock of Sept. 11 and war fever amid the imminent invasion of Iraq.
So 2022 could, for its own unique reasons, be one more exception to the rule that the party in power loses big in midterms. And if the chaos of our current politics shows one thing, it’s that while history is an important guide, anything could happen.
Paul Waldman is an American op-ed columnist and senior writer