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Economy, history may bar Democrats from keeping control of House

Biden's low approval ratings from economic woes could stifle his party's hopes of keeping the House come November.

(CN) — Despite recent legislative wins for President Joe Biden's agenda, Democrats must still overcome steep odds and historical precedent to prevent a congressional changing of the guard come November.

Concerns over soaring gas prices, waning affordable housing and a possible recession are key items Democrats must sweep out of voters’ minds to retain power come November. According to a recent ABC/Ipsos poll, only 37% of voters approve of the way Biden is handling the economic recovery.

David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, says incumbent presidents’ parties have consistently fared poorly during the midterm.

“In general, we know that midterm elections are not good for the incumbent president’s party with the average loss of House seats being 26,” he said. “Given Biden’s low approval numbers, odds are against the Democrats retaining the House, especially given the number of retirements.”

Biden’s approval rating rose to 40% this week, the highest it’s been in two months.

Since the end of World War II, only one president has seen a gain in party power during a midterm. In 2002, President George W. Bush and the Republican party gained eight seats, solidifying the GOP majority in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While recent Democratic windfalls such as the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, strong job indicators and the neutralization of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may be big wins for the party, they don't shift the paradigm like 9/11 did.

“Even though Biden’s approval numbers are better now than a few weeks ago and he has had a string of victories, much of this is inside Washington, D.C. thinking,” Schultz said. “The public is still sour on the economy every time they go to get gas or buy groceries, and most Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Moreover, Biden’s public relations and imaging is not good and he has not done enough to turn the economic perceptions or perception of him around for most voters.”

Michael J. Malbin, a political science professor at the University at Albany, says recent victories won’t make up for nearly two years of uncertainty.

“Voters do not base their decisions on specific pieces of legislation or foreign policy actions,” he said. “Rather, these governmental actions contribute to longer-term attitudes that in turn contribute to overall evaluations and, crucially, the intention to vote.”

One wildcard could be voter turnout in swing states where ballot initiatives involving abortion rights are present, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to gut Roe v. Wade.

“Abortion is already on the ballot in California, Montana and Vermont and could be on the ballot in Colorado and Michigan,” Malbin said. “This could help stimulate Democratic turnout, especially in Colorado and Michigan.”

In Colorado, one open house seat in the 8th Congressional District leaned slightly towards Biden in 2020 and is now closely contested, according to recent polling. For Michigan, three House seats split almost virtually down the line in the presidential race. Two districts saw a voter difference of less than 1%.

Kansas recently saw a large turnout with a majority of voters declining to amend the state constitution and remove protections for abortion rights.

“Kansas excites people but there abortion was the singular issue on the ballot,” Schultz said. “Yes, it drove turnout, but the GOP will also be motivated to vote in November and it is still a question mark whether in a race featuring the economy [and] abortion will motivate enough voters to make a difference. If it drives college-educated suburban women to vote along with young voters, then in several critical races it may make a difference.”

David Wells, a political science and leadership professor at Arizona State University, says it will be tough for the Democrats to overcome the odds because voters often follow the prevailing winds.

“It's more about the party than people in many cases. Because a lot of voters don't actually know who their congressperson is. They’re concerned about pocketbook issues, more so with inflation," he said. "So I think you know, it is hard, a lot of things won't turn around that quickly.

Absent a quick economic turnaround, the path for Democrats in the House is unclear. Wells thinks the prospects are generally rosier in the Senate where voters generally are aware of the incumbent and could be inclined to make a conscious decision against a controversial Trump-backed candidate.

“Democrats have a much better position in the Senate, I think they'll actually pick up seats in the Senate,” he said. “Largely due to how influential Donald Trump has been, who's been winning the primaries, it just definitely looks to me like it's the Democrats are in a much better position on that.”

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