Voter turnout’s surge and retreat creates a tidal effect on American politics. With 2020’s dramatic surge, this means 2022’s retreat could be particularly pronounced. If so, Democrats’ failure to take advantage in 2020 could make 2022 particularly difficult.
Congressional election outcomes move like the tides, rising and falling with presidential turnout and outcomes. The key is to ride the tide going in — high voter levels propelling a party’s nominee into the White House and its candidates into Congress — and withstand the tide going out — midterms’ absence of the president’s casual supporters and the resulting lack of support for his party’s congressional candidates.
The cycle is so certain that it is an axiom of American politics that the president’s party gains seats when he is elected and loses them when he is off the ballot two years later. Each of the last four administrations has entered office with control of Congress and then lost it during its tenure — and only George W. Bush in 2002, following 9/11, did not lose at least one body in its first midterm. The first midterm has been particularly brutal on the last two Democratic presidencies; Bill Clinton and Barack Obama lost an average of 58.5 House seats and 7.5 Senate seats in their first midterms.
It is easy to posit a reason. Presidential elections draw more voters to the polls and many of these voters are less politically motivated. Naturally, the winning presidential candidate draws more of these more casual voters (who helped him to win) and his party also benefits by winning additional congressional seats — the so-called “coattail” effect.
In the midterm election, the president’s casual supporters do not vote. The president’s party, which benefited from these casual voters two years earlier, suffers from their absence now and his party loses seats.
There is no reason to think the prevailing pattern will be any different in 2022. There is reason to think it could be more exaggerated and particularly difficult for Democrats who did not follow the pattern in 2020 and win large majorities to help weather it.
Last November saw an enormous surge in presidential voters. A number of factors were involved. Then-President Trump was a controversial figure who elicited strong reactions in both directions. Also, there was a pandemic that paved the way for uniquely easy access to voting. Finally, a recession of unusual abruptness and severity coincided with the pandemic and further excited the electorate.
Not surprisingly under such adverse circumstances for the incumbent Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden won. What was surprising is that while Mr. Biden was racking up the largest vote total in American presidential history, his congressional party did not fare equally well. Democrats won just three Senate seats and lost 11 House seats. Having failed to fully realize the positive pattern, Democrats now face the prospects of the negative one.
The retreat from 2020’s enormous voter surge could be equally large — and disproportionately so compared to the normal midterm retrenchment.
The 2020 presidential election drew 158.4 million voters, up almost 22 million from 2016’s 136.7 million total. In comparison, the 2018 midterm, which itself saw large proportional participation for midterms, drew just 114 million voters. Even assuming 2022 stays at 2018’s high midterm level, that is a 28% drop from 2020’s level.
To understand how this could affect the 2022 results, look at the Rasmussen daily poll of President Biden’s job approval. Sampling likely voters, Rasmussen’s 6/14 poll found Mr. Biden had an overall approval rating of 49% and disapproval rating of 50%.
Mr. Biden was essentially tied overall, yet look inside the numbers and there is a large disparity in motivated voters. Rasmussen also tracks respondents who “strongly approve” and “strongly disapprove.” In this sub-poll, Mr. Biden had a “strongly approve” of 29% and a “strongly disapprove” of 42%.
The strongly negative rating is certainly notable, but another factor is as well. The voters who had strong opinions were 71% of the total respondents. That is virtually the same level of drop-off that would occur if 2020’s vote total fell back to the 2018 midterm level.
That these “not strong” voters mirror the more casual voters who participate in presidential elections is also indicated by how strongly they are supporting Mr. Biden. Of the 29% of respondents without strong opinions on Mr. Biden, 20% supported Mr. Biden and just 8% opposed him (with 1% undecided). This would fit the pattern of casual voters who participate in presidential elections and break for the winner.
This serves as a warning for Democrats in 2022. A 2022 midterm election made up of motivated voters who are skewed against Mr. Biden would make the election a very rough sea to navigate. It would also serve as a reminder of the 2020 congressional gains they missed when their tide should have been coming in.
• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.