Midterm elections tend to follow a predictable script. The party in the White House loses seats in the Senate, and especially in the House. Political scientists call this a “presidential penalty.”
History, though, can only be a guiding force. There isn’t always an analogy to what is happening in the present.
This year, we do have a duly elected president in Joe Biden. We also have, however, a former president in Donald Trump, whose residence was searched by the FBI and who continues to falsely claim that the election he lost for another term was fraudulently decided.
This unusual situation is where we begin our look at the week of politics that was, as we try to figure out what happens to the presidential penalty when there are two presidents in the spotlight.
Trump could cost the GOP control of Congress
Anyone who has read my pieces on the midterm elections knows how skeptical I used to be about Democrats’ chances in November. This belief was rooted in the history of the presidential penalty. Sometimes, though, you have to look at the facts on the ground and realize that things aren’t what you think they were.
Democrats have been gaining ground in their bid to hold on to the US Senate and House, and Trump likely has a lot to do with it – canceling out the normal midterm penalty with his own midterm penalty.
Right now, the generic congressional ballot is basically even. If anything, Democrats have a lead of a little less than a point on average. Earlier this summer, Republicans had a roughly 3-point advantage.
A lot has happened that may have caused this political shift, including the overturning of Roe v. Wade and falling gas prices.
But when you look at people’s search interests online, it’s easy to see that Trump is playing a big role too. Biden and Trump were running basically even in the number of people searching for both men on Google during the first part of the year. Over the past 90 days, though, Trump has been getting a little bit less than 60% of the searches that were either for him or Biden. Over the past 30 days, north of 60% of such searches have been for Trump.
To see a former president having more people search for him than the current president would be hard to imagine under any other circumstances. Trump and Barack Obama at this point in their presidencies were getting closer to 90% of all the search traffic between their predecessors and them.
The correlation is a high 0.7 (on a scale from -1 to +1) between the percentage of searches for Trump compared with Biden in a rolling 14-day average and the Democratic margin on the generic ballot since the beginning of the year. It is a statistically significant relationship.
In other words, the more Trump is on people’s minds, the better Democrats are doing.
This, of course, is not what Republicans want. Although Biden has become more popular in the past month (more on that in a second), he’s still not all that popular. Presidents whose approval ratings are south of 45% tend to see their party lose a lot of seats in Congress.
Trump, though, is even more unpopular than Biden. His net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) in a Wall Street Journal poll out last week was -19 points – considerably worse than Biden’s -8 points.
And while you might think that negative views of Biden would upstage negative views of Trump given who’s currently president, that may not be the case.
Take a recent NBC News poll. When asked whether their vote for Congress was meant to signal support for Biden or Trump, voters were split 44% to 44%. In other words, the former and current President were playing an equal role in people’s votes.
What all this means is that Democrats may not lose a lot of seats this time around. Most forecasts for the House have them keeping their losses below 20 seats. They’re favored (if slightly) to hold on to the Senate.
It’s an outcome Democrats should be happy to accept, given what normally happens in midterms.
Biden gains in popularity
While Trump has been dominating the news, the man who currently holds the job of president has seen something unusual happen to his approval rating: It’s gone up as we approach the midterm elections.
Biden’s approval rating climbed 9 points from 31% to 40% in the latest Quinnipiac University poll. Although the President’s rating in the average was never that low and his jump probably isn’t as high as 9 points, the poll is part of a trend.
Biden’s approval rating is up to about 42% in an average of polls. This is a climb from about 37% during the last 10 days of July. Biden’s been basically gaining a point a week in his approval rating since that time.
To be clear, his approval rating remains on the lower end of where presidents historically are at this point in their first terms.
But history is something that Biden’s presidency isn’t following perfectly. Over a similar period during their presidencies, none of the last four presidents saw their approval ratings rise.
Now, the argument could be made that Biden had nowhere to go but up, which is true to some extent. Approval ratings tend to revert to 50% (i.e., there is mean reversion).
Biden’s also been doing some popular things, however. A clear majority of voters approve of the sweeping health care and climate bill that he signed into law. They also approve of him canceling the student debt that he did.
Additionally, it’s not like Biden has only been gaining back voters from within his base. Yes, his approval rating among Democrats has gone up by about 6 points or so in an average of polls. It has jumped by a similar margin among independents too.
This may explain why Democrats running for governor and senator in Pennsylvania are willing to appear in public with Biden. He’s someone who has a high approval rating with Democrats and who isn’t nearly as toxic with independents as he once was.
Of course, we’ll see in a few months how good of a strategy that ends up being. Biden’s approval rating still isn’t high, even if it’s up. If Democrats end up losing control of both the House and Senate come November, they may regret any embrace of the President.
For your brief encounters: Just when is fall?
Asking when autumn begins seems like a simple question. But just like when it comes to what to call the season after summer and before winter (i.e., is it autumn or fall?), there is more than one answer.
In fact, three days can claim to be the first day of fall. Meteorological autumn begins on September 1. Many people regard Labor Day, which is on September 5 this year, to be the final day of summer. We also have the astronomical equinox on September 22 this year.
So just when does fall begin? Well, a CBS News poll from 2017 found that 67% of Americans said Labor Day best represented the end of summer to them. Just 27% said the equinox, when asked to choose between the two days.
I’ll go against the grain and offer the answer not polled: Autumn began Thursday with the start of the month.
Satisfaction with the education system depends on how and who you ask: Just 42% of Americans are satisfied with the state of the K-12 education system in America, according to Gallup. That’s lower than at any other point in the 21st century. A much higher 80% of parents with K-12 children are satisfied with the quality of their eldest child’s education.
Climate change is seen as the top global threat: The vast majority of people – a median of 75% across 19 countries – view global climate change as a major threat to their countries, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. The next closest on the major threat scale was the spread of false information online, at 70%.
Feeling safe online prized more than speaking freely: A majority of teenagers (62%) say it is more important to feel safe online than to be able to speak freely, a recently released Pew poll found. Among adults, 50% believe feeling safe is more important than speaking freely, while 47% say speaking freely is more important. Young adults (ages 18 to 29) were the most likely to say speaking freely was more important (57%). Only 38% of adults ages 65 and older thought speaking freely was more important.