How Biden could break the midterm election curse

How Biden could break the midterm election curse
President Joe Biden talks with people as he holds an ice cream cone at Honey Hut Ice Cream, Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Cleveland. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Journalist Ian Millhiser sets the lunch table for us this afternoon. The correspondent for Vox asked: "Is there any polling data on whether the Republican moral panic over critical race theory is actually likely to benefit Republican candidates in 2022?"

The immediate answer is probably no, because pollsters have not yet caught up to the specificity of the question. But the question is worth asking, because virtually everyone, myself included, presumes history is on the side of the Republicans. Without actual polling data, however, virtually everyone, myself included, is just guessing.

History is a product of the slow accretion of past events, not a vision of the future. Even so, the immediate past will probably inform future decision-making by voters more than similar periods have. Put more simply, next year's congressional elections will be haunted by a losing presidential candidate in ways not seen in at least 50 years. As with many things these days, the midterms will begin and end with Donald Trump.

My friend Josh Holland reminds us of what usually happens, and why the Republicans usually have the advantage. It starts with complacency. Democratic voters, still feeling smug about winning the last presidential election, don't show up in the equal numbers during the midterms. Meanwhile, the Republicans, still smarting from losing the last presidential election, scare the hell out of their base, driving voters to the polls. The result is usually the Republicans retaking one or both chambers of the Congress.

(You could say a similar dynamic played out during the 2016 election when many Democratic voters were either put off by the appearance of Bernie Sanders being boxed out of contention or put off by the fact that a woman was the nominee. While Democratic voters were in some ways divided, so were the Republicans, because the party had nominated a man who genuinely believed GOP fascist rhetoric instead only pretending to. With a little help from Russian saboteurs, Trump squeaked out a win.)

Due to Donald Trump, the 2018 midterms smashed all records. Instead of Republican voters being the terrified ones, Democratic voters were. So, given that Trump refuses to recede into the background, and given that the Republicans keep performing serial acts of "Stalinist groveling"1 to win his favor, Democratic fear is probably going to drive 2022, too. As Josh said, "Wingnuts stormed the Capitol, they have nut-jobs like [Marjorie Taylor Greene] and they are passing all these crazy state laws. They're terrifying." Complacency won't be a factor this time, not when democracy is at stake.

What about the "Republican moral panic over critical race theory"? Well, that might be a winning strategy if Democratic voters were as complacent as they used to be—and if Barack Obama were the president. The Republicans could then tie their race-baiting to the leader of the Democratic Party, thus characterizing every Democrat up for reelection as being just like him (i.e., Black or in league with Blackness). But Joe Biden is president. That makes all the difference in the post-Trump era. He won the white working class. According to new Pew data, huge numbers of white men who bolted for Trump in 2016 came back to the Democrats in 2020. (For those who are wondering, yes, lots of Democratic voters were never going to vote for a woman.)

Then there's Biden's popularity. It's basically unmoved since he took office. Matter of fact, it seems to be as steady in the positive as Donald Trump's was in the negative. While the former president's job approval was over and under 40 percent all the way up to the end, by which time it tanked, the current president's job approval has been over and under 53 percent.2 Bear in mind that's not because Biden has fully embraced the interests of Black voters and LGBTQ voters, but despite having embraced them. It didn't matter how fascist Trump was. His job approval was flat. It could be that it doesn't matter how liberal Joe Biden is. His job approval might be just as flat.

And then there's the actual impact of the "Republican moral panic over critical race theory." It seems to me that we'd see it in polling about crime and policing, because the Republicans have made such a fetish out of activist calls for defunding the police. Turns out that while people are genuinely and understandably concerned about the rising rates of crimes, especially violent crimes, at the same time they are not demanding more police or denouncing Black activism. If anything, it's the polar opposite. According to the Post, "the poll also finds that a sizable majority believe racial discrimination still exists in the country and say they hope that communities can find solutions to crime beyond putting more police officers on American streets, such as providing economic opportunities to people in low-income communities."

The Republicans believe Black activism is its own worst enemy. The more it succeeds, the more it fails. Each step the country takes toward greater Black equality and empowerment, it takes two steps back after a chaotic white-power backlash. The Republicans believe this for good reason. That was the case after social and political upheavals of the 1960s, the subliminal background for virtually all GOP politics.

But it's not working. Not yet. Not if this latest polling is any indication. And if it's true that what used to work isn't working anymore, and if the Republicans are not creative enough to come up with an alternative, there's good reason to think, first, that "critical race theory"3 isn't going to scare Republican voters as much as Trump-groveling Republicans are going to scare Democratic voters and, two, that the coming midterm elections might step out of the familiar narrative and toward something quite new.

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