It’s tempting to draw a simple connection between the Democrats’ recent political push and their simultaneous rise in the polls. But voters don’t necessarily think that way — and there’s no guarantee this rebound will last until Election Day.
Voters often claim to be frustrated with a “doing nothing” Washington, so they should probably be satisfied when their leaders do something. And a Democratic-aligned super PAC recently unveiled a battleground ad campaign touting the party’s recent accomplishments, suggesting some party strategists are hoping the claim for legislative appropriations will be a compelling campaign message. Finally, there is a strong inherent appeal in the belief that incumbents will be rewarded with a satisfied electorate for delivering on the commitments they made during their campaigns.
In other words: it is natural to treat the enactment of a new policy as, by definition, a government success.
History shows otherwise. Some of the most productive congressional sessions in history have been followed by significant electoral losses for the president’s party: in 2010, after the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the Dodd-Frank Financial Regulation Act, Democrats lost 63 House seats and seven Senate seats. Republicans lost 27 House seats in 1982 after Ronald Reagan’s first round of tax cuts and military buildups. Even after the popular creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, by midterm the following year, ruling Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate.
In some cases, like the ACA, the legislation was controversial enough to provoke a national backlash. In others, Americans simply had other things on their minds when the next election came, such as the economic recession of 1982 and the urban riots of 1966.
Even when voters applaud the policy change, their memories often fade and attention quickly turns to other concerns. Polls showed the bipartisan infrastructure bill enjoyed broad approval when Biden signed it into law last November. But a survey last June found that only about a quarter of respondents even remembered the bill becoming law.
So even if the recent rebound in the Democratic Party’s popularity reflects an appreciative response to its wave of policymaking – rather than the steady decline in gas prices since mid-summer or the disappearance of related disruptions to Covid – the question remains open whether this will last.
Disaffection tends to be a much more energizing and enduring feeling in politics than gratitude. Ruling parties are vulnerable to large seat losses in midterm congressional elections, as opposition members are usually motivated to register their disapproval at the polls, while swing voters know they can reduce the power of the president without giving full control of the government to the other party.
To have a chance of avoiding that fate, Democrats may need to harness some anger for their own gain. This strategy is normally doomed to failure in a midterm election; the policy of reaction rarely benefits those in charge. But the June Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade is a rare case of federal politics on a major issue going sharply in the opposite direction of the president’s party, and it already appears to be producing increased electoral engagement among voters. democrats.
The continued public prominence of Donald Trump and the success of Trump-aligned candidates in the Republican primaries, particularly for the Senate, also raises the possibility that the 2022 midterm elections will be less a referendum on the incumbent president than usually. Trump is no more popular than Biden, and an election framed as a choice between the two could turn out to be more of a split decision than a Republican landslide.
Some Democrats might take cold comfort in the fact that the price of improved election forecasting is the Dobbs decision and the continued presence of Trumpism. The American political system provides incentives for leaders to achieve their substantive goals, but these incentives are rarely applied by electorates in the medium term. Because it is the party members themselves who work the hardest to pressure politicians to keep their promises, any gain usually comes at the time of renomination.
Biden’s policies on health care, climate change and student debt may not help his party win seats this year. But don’t be surprised if he uses them to make the point to his fellow Democrats that he deserves a shot at a second term in 2024.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Why is Biden’s poll numbers improving? : Jonathan Bernstein
• Biden is unpopular, but not the Democrats: Julianna Goldman
• Biden’s debt relief plan will worsen US politics: Clive Crook
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David A. Hopkins is associate professor of political science at Boston College and author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion