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Democrats oblivious to rising tide of unhappy voters may be shocked by Republican midterm wins

The Republicans are edging closer to a wave election. They are finally connecting with voters on the issues they care most about – inflation, crime and immigration – while Democrats are essentially fighting a shadow midterm on issues voters care less about. Americans aren’t necessarily acting out of partisanship; they’re venting their frustration with the poor economic fundamentals and the threatened recession.

In the summer there was lot of speculation that the incumbent party could defy midterms history and escape a big loss, and I was puzzled by the large segment of Democratic voters who disapproved of President Joe Biden and yet were sticking with the Democratic Party in the midterms. That is beginning to crack now, especially when we look at likely voters which are breaking 53/47 in favor of the Republicans now.

On inflation, crime and immigration, Republicans are channeling voters’ anxiety and frustration. In the Oct. 12-13 Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll, voters said those three issues were their greatest concern, and they were over 10 percentage points more likely to vote Republican than Democratic based on each. Among likely voters, that pro-GOP gap increases to 15 percentage points.

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This growing unpopularity of President Joe Biden’s policies has been clear now for over a year and so the administration could have made a pivot, but instead it doubled down, even denying the issues around inflation (“zero inflation”) and the border (“no crisis”) existed at all.

Americans’ anxiety around the economy looks devastating for the party in power. 84% of voters think the US is in a recession now or will be by next year. An astounding 57% of Americans think their personal financial situation is worsening. Even during most of the pandemic, only 20-30% said the same.

Voters also blame Biden for these troubles. Fifty-five percnet of voters blame Biden for inflation, including 42% of Democrats. Unlike unemployment, which affects a sliver of the population, inflation affects all Americans, and they can easily see the effect on gas prices and grocery bills. The situation will only worsen as OPEC+’s cut in oil production goes into effect, and the Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates yet again.

The Democrats are also avoiding confronting the other major issues, crime and immigration. Two-thirds of Americans think crime is rising, and 60% blame “woke politicians” for causing it. 

The Republicans are pushing crime heavily in their ads, and yet the Democrats haven’t acted. They could have passed a moderate-sponsored crime package that made important police reforms while increasing funding for the police too; but the left killed it. 

The Democrats look indifferent on immigration too. Instead of acknowledging concerns over the rising number of migrants, neither Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris, who is supposed to be in charge of the issue, have even gone to the border this year.

The Democrats cannot ignore how popular Republican stances on these issues are. An astounding 60% of Americans, including 64% of likely voters, say the Republican program of closing the border to illegal crossings, increasing incarceration of criminals and reducing or freezing government spending appeals to them.

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Biden has made popular moves in other areas, but student debt and marijuana will not bring enough new people to the polls. Fifty-eight percent of voters in the Harris Poll support his plan to cancel student debt, and 67% support his plan to pardon marijuana possession, but they are not translating to more support for the party. More voters say both these plans make them more likely to vote Republican rather than Democratic because the voters who oppose them are more energized. When it comes to student debt, for example, those who think they’re going to have to pay for other people’s relief are more motivated to vote than those getting the relief.

The impact of Dobbs on abortion, which provided the Democrats with much-needed momentum in the summer, has dissipated. Republican messaging on the issue has improved as candidates moved away from championing total bans, which remain deeply unpopular. While 40% of voters in the Harris Poll say the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe makes them more likely to vote Democratic, 37% now say it has made them more likely to vote Republican – up 5 points from last month. Democrats may have squandered their advantage by wasting time advocating for a controversial expansion of abortion rights, rather than for a bill that enshrined the rights allowed under Roe – which could likely have gained enough bipartisan support to pass.

The Democrats’ emphasis on January 6 and MAGA is also misguided. Biden’s Philadelphia speech where he attacked MAGA Republicans and called them “semi-fascists” stopped his momentum and made him look like a divisive rather than uniting figure. The January 6 committee’s multiple televised hearings have not shifted public opinion against Donald Trump either, and the Justice Department’s ramped-up investigation has only revived his popularity.

It is not unusual for the party in power to lose seats in the midterms. Typically, they have passed some legislation that’s unpopular as they pushed their presidential election majority to the limits of public approval. This election is different. Not only is there the typical buyer’s remorse, but there are also big kitchen table issues producing an electorate that is overwhelming unhappy with the direction of the country and of their own lives – and that means voters facing issues like inflation and crime personally are far more likely to turn out to turn out the party in power.

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