History suggests that the single biggest predictor of how a midterm election is going to go is the popularity (or unpopularity) of the sitting president.
If history repeats itself in 13 days, that’s a very bad thing for Democrats.
President Joe Biden’s job approval rating among Americans has dipped to 40% in the latest Gallup survey, a number that should instill fear in the hearts of Democratic candidates and strategists trying to stave off defeat on November 8. That is in line with CNN’s Poll of Polls, which puts Biden’s average approval rating at 41%.
Biden’s approval rating has fallen steadily over the last several months in Gallup data. He was at 44% approval in August and 42% approval in September. The trend line, in other words, does not look good for him.
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Biden now finds himself in a worse position in Gallup’s polling compared to his recent predecessors at a similar point in the final stretch before their first midterm election in office:
Donald Trump: 43% in October 2018.
Barack Obama: 45% in late October 2010.
George W. Bush: 67% in late October 2002.
Bill Clinton: 41% in mid-October 1994. (He jumped up to 48% later in the month.)
And in those cases, poor numbers preceded steep losses for the president’s party in the midterms.
In 2018, Trump’s Republicans lost a net of 40 House seats and the majority. In 2010, Democrats lost a net of 63 House seats and the majority. And in 1994, Democrats lost a net of 54 House seats and the majority. Notice a trend?
And all three of those presidents had better numbers going into the election than Biden has right now.
It’s not just recent history that suggests that low approval ratings for a president spell doom for his side in a midterm election.
In the history of Gallup’s polling, which dates back to the 1940s, the average seat loss for a president’s party when that president’s job approval is under 50% was 37 House seats as of 2018. 37!
Biden’s lingering unpopularity is a major factor in the decision by prominent political handicappers to up their estimates of Republican House gains.
On Tuesday, the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter moved its prediction from a net Republican gain of 10-20 House seats to 12-25 seats. “Two weeks out, Republicans have the momentum in the race for House control,” wrote House editor David Wasserman.
And last week, Inside Elections, another campaign tipsheet, made a similar shift – moving their ceiling on Republican gains in the House from 20 to 25. “If late-deciding voters break against Democrats or if Democratic enthusiasm drops a bit, Republicans could see larger gains,” wrote Inside Elections editor Nathan Gonzales.
At this point, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Republicans will pick up the net of five seats they need to take control of the House. The latest model from FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans a better than 80% chance of reclaiming the majority they lost four years ago.
The real question now appears to be how deep Democratic losses will be. And judging by Biden’s current approval ratings – and the weight of history – it could be even worse than people are predicting today.