That risk still looms over Democrats, but the party has a unique, rarely discussed, asset in trying to avoid that fate in 2022: the unusually large pool of voters who have backed its candidates in recent elections.
Voters surged to the polls in large numbers in 2016, and in record-breaking proportions in the 2018 and 2020 elections; Democrats won the popular vote in both of those presidential races by substantial margins, while also capturing significantly more House votes nationwide than the GOP in 2018.
John Rogers, who felt the brunt of the Democratic turnout wave as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2018 elections, thinks 2022 will revert closer to the usual midterm pattern, with the party out of the White House exhibiting more enthusiasm about voting. With Trump out of office, he says, Democrats are not displaying anywhere near the grassroots energy and urgency they showed during the years of “the resistance” to his presidency.
Taken together, all of these factors underscore why the president’s party has so rarely avoided losses in midterm elections — and why even many Democrats acknowledge the party faces difficult odds of holding the House in particular. But even with all these headwinds, Podhorzer argues, Democrats have a pathway to overcome the historical trends if they can energize enough of their recent supporters, particularly the huge cohort of voters who participated for the first time in 2018 or 2020.
“Everything else is working against Democrats, but this is the first midterm … that a president’s party has had this reservoir of votes hanging over,” he says. “That’s the way Democrats can avoid the usual losses in the midterm: They have the names and addresses” of what could be an unprecedented number of recent voters.
Midterm election patterns
One of the defining characteristics of midterm elections has long been that turnout falls sharply from the previous presidential contest. Historically, Podhorzer notes, only about 40% of eligible voters have participated in midterms over roughly the past five decades.
Compared with the previous presidential contests, turnout falls for all groups in midterm elections. But it has declined most for groups on which Democrats have grown increasingly dependent: young people and voters of color. That pattern proved especially damaging to Democrats in the two midterm elections during Barack Obama’s presidency: the 2010 contest, when Democrats lost control of the House, and the 2014 election, when they lost their majority in the Senate.
In other words, a huge number of Democratic voters who helped power Obama to his two historic victories stayed home in the midterms that carried Republicans to control of Congress, and functionally ended Obama’s ability to drive his agenda into law.
By the time Obama left office, operatives in both parties were talking openly about a structural advantage for the GOP in midterm elections, given these turnout patterns among non-White and especially younger voters.
Then came 2018.
In 2018, more than 118 million Americans voted, exactly half of the eligible population, according to McDonald’s calculations. That was the highest midterm turnout, as a share of eligible voters, since 1914, before women won the right to vote.
How significant was 2018?
McDonald, like many experts, doubts that turnout in 2022 will match the peak of 2018, an election electrified by the unique passions surrounding Trump. But after the huge turnout in 2020, he is dubious that participation will fall as far as it did in the Obama midterms, which proved so devastating for Democrats. At this early stage, he’s anticipating around 45% of eligible voters may turn out next year, less than in 2018 but considerably more than in most midterms.
Rogers, the Republican consultant, has similar expectations.
“Right now, I am expecting something that is higher than an average midterm,” he told me, though it will “probably not … go all the way up to 2018.”
To Podhorzer, the prospect that participation next year won’t fall as sharply as it did in 2010 or 2014 is key. The large pool of recent Democratic voters, he argues, provides the party an opportunity to avoid repeating the catastrophically severe reductions in turnout among its core constituencies that buried the party in the two midterms during Obama’s presidency.
Either way, Podhorzer argues, Democrats begin with a head start in the race to reach that total. “No matter what the number is, there are more Democrats out there than Republicans who voted” in these recent elections, he says.
Key to realizing that potential advantage, Democrats agree, is motivating the new voters who surged to the polls in 2018 and 2020. Though Trump also mobilized huge numbers of new voters — especially in 2020 — Catalist estimates that Democrats won exactly three-fifths of the roughly 14 million new voters in 2018 and 55% of the roughly 22 million Americans who voted for the first time in 2020. How many of those voters return in 2022 could be the margin between success and failure for Democrats.
“We had a massive turnout in 2020, all these marginal voters who had not voted before,” says Meg Schwenzfeier, chief analytics officer at Catalist. “So the degree to which they stay in the electorate is the big question for me.”
Trump’s effect on 2022 turnout
In an interview, Greenberg said he was not yet convinced that elevated engagement among Trump supporters would translate into high turnout, because the former President has raised so many doubts about the reliability of the electoral system.
McDonald also believes Trump’s ultimate visibility will be critical in determining how many of the casual and first-time voters from the past three elections show up again in 2022 — on both sides.
The dominant early view among most Democrats — and certainly in the White House — is to focus far less on Trump in their messaging than on making a case to voters that the party has delivered on their kitchen table concerns by taming the coronavirus outbreak and restarting the economy.
“I think the most important thing” to generate turnout for 2022, says Greenberg, expressing the consensus perspective, “is delivering to those Democrats who are still struggling.”
Some Democratic strategists, however, consider economic gains necessary but not sufficient for the party to defy the usual midterm trends. Consultant Dan Sena, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance, notes that Republicans put money into many voters’ pockets with their 2017 tax cuts but still were routed in the next midterms, even among many affluent suburban voters who had benefited.
“It is a similar situation,” he says. “The emotional and cultural issues are going to drive an awful lot of turnout for the party bases.”
Biden so far is wagering that Democrats will be rewarded more for cooperation than confrontation, a strategy that was common in an earlier era when strategists believed persuadable swing voters were the key to electoral success, especially in midterm elections, when far fewer people voted than in the presidential races. Now, though, strategists on both sides tend to believe turning out the base is a more decisive factor, even in midterms.
And that means if Biden’s mostly conciliatory approach toward the GOP fails to activate the huge pool of Democratic voters from the past three elections, his party could pay a punishing price in 2022.