Next month’s 469 midterm congressional elections pit Republican candidates against Democrats in a vital struggle for control of Capitol Hill. But there are other ways than through the prism of party to view the November campaign — and the outcome on Election Day may depend on which of these other narratives prevails:
■ Inflation against abortion
These two elements are proxies for many of the current House and Senate races around the country. The Republicans are emphasizing inflation, now at the highest levels in a generation. The Democrats are stressing abortion rights, now more endangered than they have been in a generation.
Right now inflation is winning. In fact, it is way ahead.
Take a moment to do some advanced math. The latest New York Times/Siena College poll shows that the percentage of those polled who believed inflation was the biggest issue facing the country ballooned from 36 percent in July to 44 percent now. Now add in this and stir vigorously: Those who believe that economic issues are the preeminent issue right now line up by more than two-to-one with the Republicans.
One more element to mix in: The latest CBS News poll shows that Americans by a staggering margin of more than a four-to-one believe the economy will get worse. Even though data assembled from Federal Reserve sources by the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute show that the economy since 1947 has grown a percentage point more under Democrats than Republicans, for most of the past decade, the Gallup Poll has found the public believes the Republicans to be the better stewards of the economy. That’s a headwind that makes the Democrats’ tasks even more challenging.
Caveat: A University of California, Santa Barbara, study examined inflation and job growth over the years and found that, in the characterization of political scientist John T. Wooley, “neither variable is strongly correlated with midterm seat gains or losses.” As for abortion, the Democratic offensive aimed at women may be fizzling out; the New York Times/Siena poll found an astonishing swing among women who identify as Independents, from favoring Democrats by 14 points in September to favoring Republicans now by 18 points. Overall, the 10-point Democratic advantage among women has dropped like autumn leaves in the Adirondacks — a dire warning for Democrats who depended on women’s vote in their 2018 midterm surge.
■ Donald Trump versus Joe Biden
Let’s leave aside the Karl Marx maxim about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce, even though in 2022 there is a strong argument for both. No one is eager to relive the 2020 election, but it is indisputable that these midterm contests are coda to 2020.
Both men are on the campaign trail, with Mr. Biden having two stops in the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania last week alone. Both are talking about election integrity, though from starkly different perspectives. The president’s emphasis is on fundraising; his predecessor’s emphasis is on inspiring cash payments. The two are scorpions in a horror-film bottle, lashing out against each other.
Advantage: Neither. The two have astonishing disapproval ratings; the difference between the two on that critical measure is within the margin of error. The country wants to move on. Perhaps these two should heed the public’s desperate call.
Caveat No. 1: Perhaps more than Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump’s future as a presidential contender depends on the November results. He will, of course, claim a huge margin of victory in races where he has endorsed Republicans — but many if not most of those victorious Republicans will be in safe states or districts and would have won regardless. The key races to watch are Senate contests in Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the gubernatorial races in Arizona, Maryland and Pennsylvania. If Mr. Trump’s record is below .500, then GOP strategists may conclude he is yesterday’s cat food.
Caveat No. 2: Beware of over-interpreting midterm congressional elections and projecting them two years forward onto a presidential election. Ronald Reagan’s Republicans lost 27 seats in the House in 1982 and then he won a landslide reelection victory in 1984. Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost 52 House seats a decade later and then cruised to reelection in 1996. And Barack Obama’s Democrats lost 63 seats in 2010, but he was reelected two years later.
■ Precedent versus present conditions
The history is clear on this, with the party holding the White House since 1934 suffering an average loss of 28 seats in the House and four in the Senate. But as investment counselors warn, past performance may not be indicative of future results. That may well be the case in 2022.
Advantage: Republicans, consistent with patterns broken only twice since 1938: in 1998 (five seats amid Mr. Clinton’s impeachment imbroglio) and 2022 (eight seats in the wake of George W. Bush’s popularity push after the terrorist attacks of 2001). The party in the White House has gained Senate seats only six times in midterms since 1934, but it is plausible that could happen this time, possibly with Ohio and Pennsylvania victories.
Caveat: History has its limits as a prognosticator. So do broad political trends. Midterm elections are studied by political scientists and commentators but are conducted in parts.
House races are conducted in specific geographical areas, each with its own character, traditions and political outlook, often but not always part of a national trend, the results sometimes but not always dependent on the personality and quality of the candidate. Amid the 2018 Republican wreckage, for example, were GOP candidates who bucked the national trend by replacing Democrats in the House from California, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma and South Carolina. A GOP wave could produce Democratic lawmakers in districts now controlled by Republicans.
■ Predictions versus performance
Only the unwise are sure of election results before Election Day. On the surface, Mr. Clinton was a wounded figure when voters went to the polls in 1998; impeachment proceedings had just begun against him for having an affair with a White House intern, and Republicans hoped to pick up more than two dozen seats. The GOP held the House but lost seats, the first time since the presidency of James Monroe that the party holding the White House increased its House delegation in a president’s second term.
Caveat: Bettors beware. You’ll do far better wagering on this weekend’s NFL games.