The November 8 midterms are the first elections in the United States since the end of the COVID-19 crisis and the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. They will be held against a backdrop of a deepening US economic crisis and growing polarisation among Americans.
Democrats are expected to do poorly in the elections, which is typical for the political party that holds the presidency. The Republicans have the potential to bring under their control the House of Representatives and even the Senate.
Such a development, however, should not be interpreted as an indication that former President Donald Trump is definitely slated for a comeback in the 2024 presidential elections.
A Republican win
There are several factors that seem to be favouring a Republican win in the upcoming midterms.
First, amid a negative outlook for the US economy, Biden’s approval rating has taken a hit, hovering around 40 percent in aggregated polls. This would certainly affect the Democratic Party’s performance in the vote.
According to a Republican pollster, who looked at results from midterm elections between 1962 and 2018, US presidents with job approval ratings under 50 percent have lost 39 seats in the House of Representatives on average.
Trump, who has actively campaigned alongside Republican congressional candidates, has retained a certain level of popularity. Democrats’ hopes that recent investigations into the former president and his associates would affect the pro-Trump camp have been dashed. The former president has maintained a favourable rating of around 44 percent, while the percentage of those who view him negatively has not increased from the low 50s.
The Democrats have relied on politicised issues, such as abortion, to help them rally support and offset Biden’s lower ratings. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning a 1973 ruling that made abortion a federal right led to a surge in women registering to vote. In the 2018 midterm election, suburban and college-educated women helped the Democrats win back the House of Representatives from the Republicans, a major electoral defeat for the Trump administration.
But ahead of the elections, polls show that some women voters – in particular, white suburban women – care more about inflation and volatile gas prices and are shifting towards voting for the Republican Party.
It seems that Democrats may also not be able to win the votes of moderate Republicans who backed Biden in the 2020 presidential election. The leftist base of the Democratic Party, which is the driving force behind the liberal vote, is focused on confronting Trumpism rather than luring moderate Republicans.
According to the Associated Press, more than a million voters have switched from the Democratic to Republican Party. Among them are swing voters who turned against Trump but are now going back to supporting the GOP.
The Republicans, as a party in opposition, also seem to have the edge on potential turnout in the midterms, fueled by the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion, which they see as a major victory, and the urge to vindicate Trump. In 2020, liberals were more motivated to turn up and vote to oust the president, but this momentum seems to have lost some steam. Democrats are struggling to convince the coalition of voters that elected Biden in 2020 to come out big again this year.
A Trump comeback?
Thus, Republicans regaining control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate does not mean a rise in Trump’s popularity. Rather, a Republican victory would be a consequence of the slump in support for Biden amid an economic crisis and the failure of the Democratic Party to defend its economic policies and rally support for issues they advocate for, such as gun control and abortion rights.
Once Trump announces his intention to run in 2024, which is expected to happen after the midterms, electoral attitudes can easily change. As he engages with the public again as a presidential candidate, voters will be reminded of his controversial presidency and persona.
Furthermore, the economic situation in the US also may change by the beginning of the next election season. The ball will be in the Democrats’ court in the next two years to lead the way out of the economic downturn. Biden has executive privileges which he could use to mitigate the impact of inflation and improve economic indicators.
It is also not clear yet whether the 79-year-old incumbent will run for a second term or if the Democrats will put forward a different candidate. If Trump returns to his divisive rhetoric, the Democratic Party would need to have a candidate that can inspire the liberal base to get out and vote without alienating centrists and independents. Trump struggled electorally in 2020 even in historically red states like Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, and his loyal base alone might not be enough to carry him back to the White House.
Moreover, if Republicans control both the House and Senate, it would not necessarily mean an easy ride for proponents of conservative policies. The Senate, which would likely be under the moderate Republican leadership of Mitch McConnell, may resist House draft bills that are perceived as too extreme, even if it means working with Democratic colleagues on legislative alternatives. Republican control of both chambers of Congress might even reinforce the GOP’s internal divisions over what policies to prioritise and what rhetoric to adiot leading up to the presidential election.
In other words, the political and economic situation in the US could be quite different from the present one in the fall of 2024. Indeed, Trump continues to have a significant sway over US politics, but his current level of popularity – stuck in the mid-40s – may not be enough to win him back the presidency. In this sense, the 2024 election is for the Democrats to lose.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.