Will 2022 tell us about 2024?

While no one knows exactly how bad this year will be for Democrats, every serious analyst recognizes 2022 is unlikely to be good for my party.

Whatever the precise outcome, too many will blithely assume that the 2022 results will yield significant insights into President Biden’s prospects in 2024.

In the eight worst midterms for the party in control of White House since 1938, the party holding executive power lost between 45 and 81 House seats. Two years later, that same party won reelection to the White House in more than half — five of the eight — cases.

The three worst midterm performances occurred in 1938, 2010, and 1994. Two years later, each of the Democratic presidents who presided over those debacles won reelection.

In short, there is no meaningful relationship between midterm performance and a party’s prospects in the next presidential election.

Why not?

Those presidents certainly did not remain popular during the midterm losses. Just 51 percent approved of President Franklin Roosevelt’s performance at the time of the 1938 midterms, about the lowest of his presidency.

Those approval ratings changed by the time the presidential election rolled around. The summer before the election of 1940, FDR’s approval was at 58 percent. Going into Clinton’s reelection his approval climbed to 56 percent, while Obama’s rose to 54 percent.

Two years is enough time for numbers to move. Of course, for numbers to move, reality has to change, and it did.

Sometimes things change because of circumstances over which presidents have no control. Other times presidents learn from losses and choose to make changes.

Having lost a battle over national health care and 52 House seats, President Clinton began his reelection year by declaring the era of big government over, while also making clear, “we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”

On the other, it divides responsibility to some extent. In the public reckoning, the buck still stops at the president’s desk, but many voters recognize that a Congress in the hands of the other party limits a president’s freedom of action.

With divided government, interparty battles may elicit more attention than intraparty fights.

Midterms are importantly referenda on the party in charge, while presidential elections lend themselves more naturally to choices.

Midterm electorates can also be different. Presidential electorates have always been larger. Historically, those smaller midterm electorates have been friendlier to Republicans, as younger, less well-educated, and minority voters were less likely to turnout in nonpresidential years.

We don’t know what turnout will look like in either 2022 or 2024, but we do know the composition of those electorates can be different.

For all these reasons and more, we can also be certain that anyone using 2022 as a guide to 2024 will be working with a distorted map and a broken compass.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel. 

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