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Plunging gas prices won’t help Democrats

The rise was stunning, and so is the fall: Gasoline prices surged by $1.50 per gallon from February to June, and now they’re dropping just as quickly. Average gas prices peaked at $5.02 per gallon in June, and they’re now down to $4.14. Declining oil prices suggest gas prices could drop below $4 by the end of the summer.

This is unambiguous good news for President Biden, whose approval rating has plummeted in inverse proportion to soaring inflation, including gas prices, during the last 12 months. Biden’s approval rating bottomed at about 38% in mid-July and it has been inching up since then. Biden should also benefit from the takedown of terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on July 31, the CHIPS+ Act meant to counter China’s economic heft and a green-energy bill that could pass Congress within weeks.

But none of this seems likely to improve the odds that Biden’s Democrats will retain control of Congress in the November midterm elections. Analysis by forecasting site fivethirtyeight finds that in 80 of 100 election scenarios, Republicans take control of the House in the midterms. The odds have improved slightly for Democrats during the last few weeks, but there’s still an overwhelming likelihood they’ll lose. There’s little they can do to change the outlook.

The odds of Democrats keeping control of the Senate are better, perhaps 50-50 or a bit higher. But if Dems lose control of either chamber, Republicans will be able to block Biden’s entire legislative agenda, including tax hikes and new spending programs the current Congress won’t be able to pass. Control of the House would also give Republicans the power to end the Jan. 6 investigation and conduct hearings into all manner of Biden-related intrigue, such as the unseemly business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter.

Weren't Democrats finally catching a break?

Democrats have reason to think they’re finally catching a tailwind. The Supreme Court’s overturn of the Roe v. Wade abortion protections is out of step with public opinion, as voters in ruby-red Kansas underscored on Aug. 2 when they voted down an amendment to the state constitution that would have banned abortion. The Supreme Court decision, which opened the door for many states to fully or partially ban abortion, has given Democrats a potent issue they can use to motivate voters to turn out and back Democrats.

The economy could be on the upswing, as well. The worst inflation since 1981—9.1%—has pummeled consumer confidence, for good reason. But that seems likely to improve. The big drop in energy prices during the last six weeks will almost certainly bring the overall inflation rate down during the next few months, at least. The job market remains strong and the stock market has begun to recover from a downturn. The economy shrank during the first six months of 2022, but that’s mostly due to ongoing COVID disruptions. Modest growth should resume through the rest of the year.

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“Generic ballot” polling does, in fact, show improving odds for Democrats. These are polls that simply ask voters which party they’d support in the upcoming election, without mentioning any candidates or issues. Democrats trailed in such polls all year, but have recently caught up, with both parties now getting exactly the same margin, 44.2%, in fivethirtyeight’s composite of generic ballot polls.

Republicans still have an edge

That’s not the same as electoral success, however, and on a race-by-race basis, Republicans maintain a considerable edge. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, for instance, rates 189 House seats as safely Republican, and just 155 as safely Democratic. Including races that lean one way or the other, Republicans have a 217-191 edge. Twenty Democrats are running in races the Center for Politics rates as tossups, compared with just six Republicans. It takes 218 seats to win the majority in the House, and while Republicans might not enjoy a “wave” election, there’s not much blocking them from a simple majority.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 16: A Joe Biden sticker is seen on a pump at a Mobil gas station on Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, April 16, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 16: A Joe Biden sticker is seen on a pump at a Mobil gas station on Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, April 16, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images) (Tom Williams via Getty Images)

The Democratic disadvantage has less to do with issues and voter concerns than many people might think. The first challenge for Democrats is the snapback effect, in which the president’s party normally loses ground in Congress during midterm elections, which has happened in nearly every midterm since the end of World War II. Since Democrats have tiny majorities in both chambers—four votes in the House and just one in the Senate—they’ll end up out of power if they lose any ground at all.

In the House, more incumbent Democrats are leaving office this year than incumbent Republicans, which makes it harder for Democrats to defend seats they already hold. It’s the opposite in the Senate, one reason the Democrats’ odds of hanging on are better there.

Earlier this year, it looked as if redistricting following the 2020 Census might help Democrats more than Republicans. But legal challenges and judges’ rulings seem to have narrowed that edge and maybe eliminated it altogether.

Biden’s dismal approval rating does matter, and it’s a major barrier for Democrats running in competitive races. As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report points out, it is possible for Congressional candidates of the president’s party to outperform an unpopular president. But not by a lot. The ceiling might be five or six percentage points, which means if Biden’s national approval rating improved to 45%, a Democrat running for Congress in a two-person race with the same voter profile might be able to eke out a 51% win. At best. If Biden’s approval remains more or less where it is, Republicans will wallop Democrats in competitive races.

Still, some Democrats see reasons for hope, given intangibles such as newfound enthusiasm among Democrats outraged by the Supreme Court’s rightward lurch, and Trumpy Republicans who might have given up on voting amid Trump’s ceaseless (and incorrect) insistence that elections are rigged.

Yet there’s often false hope among the president’s party in midterm elections, usually followed by bitter disappointment. Falling gas prices are still good, though.

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