What a difference four years makes in politics. At this point in 2017, Democrats were about to pull off a stunning Senate win against a very flawed opponent in the deeply red state of Alabama. It was one of many indications that Democrats were on their way to a big 2018 victory.
Today, everything is different. Pretty much every single indicator that pointed to a Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms now points to a Republican one in the 2022 midterms.
Here are some of those key factors to compare:
Generic Congressional Ballot
Start with the fact that Democrats were up by about nine points in polling for the race for Congress in early December 2017. As it turned out, this was the margin by which they’d win the national House vote in November 2018.
The Republicans hold an average two-point advantage on the generic ballot in December 2021.
There have only been two midterm cycles since 1938 when Republicans had any lead on this measure at this point. One of those was 2002, when Republicans defied midterm history to gain House seats in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and very high approval ratings for President George W. Bush. The other was 2010 when they were up by two points on the generic ballot at this moment in time and went on to net gain 63 seats.
Indeed, there have been ten times since 1938 when the opposition party (i.e. not in control of the presidency) led on the generic ballot this far from a midterm. They would go on to win a majority of seats in the midterm all ten of those times.
A big reason Republicans were struggling in December 2017 was that then-President Donald Trump’s average approval rating was at a meager 37%. It was the worst for an elected president about 11 months into his first term.
President Joe Biden is not much better with an approval rating of about 42%. His is the second worst approval rating for an elected president at this point in their first term.
Neither president was anywhere close to where a president’s ratings have been 13 months from the midterms in cycles in which his party gained or lost less than five seats in the House. (Republicans need a net pick up of at least five seats to gain control of the House.)
The president’s approval rating was between 60% and 84% at this point the three times (1962 cycle, 1998 cycle and 2002 cycle) in the polling era there was this minimal loss or gain for the president’s party in a midterm election.
Special Elections and Virginia
Along with the polling, the special elections similarly point to a very different political environment from 2017. In more than 70 special state legislative and federal special elections through this point in the Trump presidency, Democratic candidates were doing an average of about 10 points better at this time than the 2016 presidential margin in that district or state was.
Right now in 2021, Republicans are doing about five points better on average than the 2020 presidential margin in an average of nearly 60 special state legislative and federal special elections during the Biden presidency.
While we still have a ways to go until the midterms, we know that the shift from the presidential baseline in special elections has been predictive of the next election. This has been true in midterms since 1994, and a lack of a major change from the 2016 baseline during the special elections in the lead up to 2020 was a major red flag that Republicans weren’t as in much trouble as some of the polling indicated.
Beyond the special elections, Democrats also did more than 3.5 points better than the 2016 presidential margin in the regularly scheduled 2017 Virginia elections. This was true both in the gubernatorial race and an average of 100 House of Delegate races.
Last month, Republicans did over 12 points better than the 2020 presidential margin in the gubernatorial and an average of the 100 House of Delegate races. In doing so, they swept the top of the ticket (governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general) and gained control of the House of Delegates.
The results and polling are a big reason that politicians have or did run for the hills. More than a dozen Republican House members announced they were retiring from public office by early December 2017. Only five Democrats were.
Today, 11 House Democrats are retiring from public office at the end of the Congress. Just four Republicans are (excluding Rep. Devin Nunes, who is resigning).
Looking at all retirements (including those running for other elected offices, but excluding resignations), 19 Democrats are leaving the House compared to 11 Republicans at the end of the this Congress. In December 2017, it was 23 Republicans to 13 Democrats retiring at the end of that Congress.
Retirements are not a perfect indicator of future midterm outcomes, but they’re a sign. Elected officials are looking at the same statistics we are. They aren’t likely to retire en masse, unless they sense they’re going to lose power.
That’s why the party that has had more elected officials retiring from public office has lost seats in eight of the last 12 midterm cycles since 1974.
The Bottom Line
The opposition party has picked up 5 or more seats in 34 of 38 midterms since 1870. Not a lot so far suggests that the 2022 midterms will be any different.