The politics of possibility?
Not this year.
On Election Day 2022, Americans are unhappy with the present, pessimistic about the future and not fully enamored with either political party. Their anxious, angry mood helps explain why campaign appeals have mostly turned not on aspirational promises – on exploring space or ending poverty, say – but on ominous warnings about the dangers of supporting the other side.
The polarization that has marked U.S. politics for a generation has become more toxic, even more than during the era of antiwar protests and political assassinations in the 1960s. Not only do the two parties offer contrasting views on policy and conflicting visions for the country. Some candidates are even refusing to commit to accept the elections’ outcomes.
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“Probably not since even the Civil War (has there been) such a dire situation for our democracy as we are in the current day,” said John Mark Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “What does it say about us as voters and us as a people that we’re focused on inflation, and we’re focused on jobs, or we’re focused on those kinds of issues as opposed to being focused on things that matter to us broadly as citizens?”
That’s the first lesson – a remedial one, perhaps – from the 2022 campaign.
1. It’s still the economy, stupid.
The truism that guided Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the White House in 1992 hasn’t expired.
Other issues matter, of course, and the Supreme Court decision last spring in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned abortion rights sparked a political firestorm. An overwhelming majority of Americans also express concerns about threats to democracy, including those illuminated by the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol last year.
But when it comes to voting, the kitchen table still rules. Inflation is near a 40-year-high, measured at 8.2% for the 12 months ending in September, increasing the cost of everything from food to housing and stoking fears of recession ahead.
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The Biden administration first downplayed the threat of inflation, then delayed focusing on it as a dominant concern despite complaints from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and some other prominent White House allies that the party was failing to effectively address voters’ economic woes.
“Voters do trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle certain topics,” including abortion and climate change, the centrist Democratic group Third Way said in an analysis released Monday, “but unfortunately for Democrats, the issues where they stand on stronger ground are also those which voters consistently say are less important to them – at least at the federal level.”
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Republican strategists have been delighted. “It was a campaign where only one party decided to take the playing field on the one issue that mattered,” said strategist Brendan Buck, a former top aide to GOP congressional leaders. “Elections are usually only about one or two things. This one was clearly about inflation.”
“When Dobbs dropped, it seemed like Democratic deliverance,” said Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “But, as many of us suspected, the curse of the president’s party is hard to evade, especially when the president is unpopular and the economy/inflation are hurting voters.”
2. It’s about to get louder in the House.
The most conservative Republicans and most liberal Democrats are poised to become more powerful in the new Congress.
Among Republicans, increasingly confident of gaining control of the House, the ranks of the right-wing Freedom Caucus are all but certain to grow. The combative group already has issued a list of rule changes and other demands to Republican leaders. It also has sent a 52-page guide to GOP candidates advising how to assert themselves in Washington if they win.
If the GOP does take control, Freedom Caucus members will hold some high-profile positions. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a founder of the group, is expected to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has embraced QAnon and other far-right conspiracy theories, predicted Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was “going to give me a lot of power and a lot of leeway” to satisfy Republican voters. “And if he doesn’t they’re going to be very unhappy about it,” she told The New York Times.
Among Democrats, moderates who represent swing districts have faced the most peril in their re-election bids, including Virginia representatives Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin and Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne. They are among those who have argued Democrats need to do more to appeal to voters in the middle.
If the number of Democratic members declines, as nonpartisan analysts predict, the caucus will be more dominated by progressives who represent safely Democratic districts. They have argued that the party needs to boldly assert progressive policies to energize core voters, including liberals, Black Americans and young people.
They may soon be in a stronger position to test that theory.
3. Some Hispanic voters are reconsidering their allegiance to Democrats.
Latino voters, long viewed by Democrats as part of their coalition, have been increasingly open to Republican appeals this year.
In the last midterm election, in 2018, Latino voters supported Democrats for Congress by 70%-20%. Now that Democratic advantage has narrowed to 54%-30%, according to tracking polls by the nonpartisan NALEO Educational Fund. “There’s still a significant advantage for Democrats,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the nonprofit group that encourages Latino civil engagement. “But it makes the Latino vote more competitive between the parties.”
That’s especially significant given that Hispanic Americans are the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, up by nearly five million eligible voters in the past four years, according to the Pew Research Center.
A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll last month found Hispanic voters were more likely than non-Hispanic white voters to report that the bite of inflation has forced their families to make changes in their daily lives. Conservative views on cultural issues have also drawn some to the GOP.
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While Democrats are still viewed more favorably by Latinos than Republicans are, 40% of Latinos in the NALEO survey said Democrats “don’t care too much” about Hispanics. That’s a percentage-point worse than the 39% who said that of Republicans.
In south Texas, the shift among Hispanic voters has prompted serious Republican challenges to three incumbent Democratic members of Congress, and it’s a factor in key contests in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
4. It’s already time to focus on 2024 election.
Want to take a deep breath before the next campaign begins?
The midterm elections will shape the political landscape and intensify the pressure on Biden and Trump to declare whether they will run for the White House in 2024.
Biden says it’s his “intention” to run again, but he’s indicated that a decision might be several months away. “Within the timeframe that makes sense after this election here, going into next year, [I’ll] make a judgment on what to do,” he told CBS’ 60 Minutes last month. Midterm setbacks for Democrats seen as a rebuke of Biden’s leadership presumably could be part of the calculation.
Trump doesn’t seem likely to wait, although some Republican hopefuls – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence and former secretary of State Mike Pompeo among them – haven’t ruled out running even if Trump does.
At an airport rally in Latrobe, Pa., Saturday night, Trump reveled in chants of “four more years!” from the audience. He promised an announcement of his plans soon – there are reports that could happen as soon as next week – and he left little doubt what his decision would be.
“So everybody, I promise you, in the very next — very, very, very short period of time, you’re gonna be so happy, OK?” he said. “You’re gonna be so happy.”
Story Credit: usatoday.com