With President Biden’s approval rating mired in the 30s and with nearly 80 percent of voters saying the country is heading in the wrong direction, all the ingredients seem to be in place for a Republican sweep in the November midterm elections.
But Democrats and Republicans begin the campaign in a surprisingly close race for control of Congress, according to the first New York Times/Siena College survey of the cycle.
Overall among registered voters, 41 percent said they preferred Democrats to control Congress compared with 40 percent who preferred Republican control.
Among likely voters, Republicans led by one percentage point, 44 percent to 43 percent, reflecting the tendency for the party out of power to enjoy a turnout advantage in midterms.
The results suggest that the wave of mass shootings and the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade have at least temporarily insulated the Democrats from an otherwise hostile national political environment while energizing the party’s predominantly liberal activist base.
But the confluence of economic problems and resurgent cultural issues has helped turn the emerging class divide in the Democratic coalition into a chasm, as Republicans appear to be making new inroads among nonwhite and working-class voters — perhaps especially Hispanic voters — who remain more concerned about the economy and inflation than abortion rights and guns.
For the first time in a Times/Siena national survey, Democrats had a larger share of support among white college graduates than among nonwhite voters — a striking indication of the shifting balance of political energy in the Democratic coalition. As recently as the 2016 congressional elections, Democrats won more than 70 percent of nonwhite voters while losing among white college graduates.
With four months to go until the election, it is far too soon to say whether the campaign will remain focused on issues like abortion and gun control long enough for Democrats to avoid a long-expected midterm rout. If it does, a close national vote would probably translate to a close race for control of Congress, as neither party enjoys a clear structural advantage in the race. Partisan gerrymandering has slightly tilted the map toward Republicans in the House, but Democrats enjoy the advantages of incumbency and superior fund-raising in key districts.
Recent unfavorable news for Democrats, in the form of Supreme Court rulings, and some tragic news nationally might ordinarily mean trouble for the party in power, but that’s not what the results suggest.
The survey began 11 days after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, when cellphones were still buzzing with news alerts about the mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill.
In an open-ended question, those who volunteered that issues related to guns, abortion or the Supreme Court were the most important problem facing the country represented about one in six registered voters combined. Those voters preferred Democratic control of Congress, 68 percent to 8 percent.
Some of the hot-button social issues thought to work to the advantage of Republicans at the beginning of the cycle, like critical race theory, have faded from the spotlight. Only 4 percent of voters combined said education, crime or immigration was the most important issue facing the country.
The Times/Siena survey is not the first to suggest that the national political environment has improved for Democrats since the Supreme Court overturned Roe. On average, Democrats have gained about three points on the generic congressional ballot compared with surveys taken beforehand.
In the wake of the court’s ruling, the poll finds greater public support for legal abortion than previous Times/Siena surveys. Sixty-five percent of registered voters said abortion should be mostly or always legal, up from 60 percent of registered voters in September 2020.
The proportion of voters who opposed the court’s decision — 61 percent — was similar to the share who said they supported Roe v. Wade two years ago.
Democrats are maintaining the loyalty of a crucial sliver of predominantly liberal and highly educated voters who disapprove of Mr. Biden’s performance but care more about debates over guns, democracy and the shrinking of abortion rights than the state of the economy.
Voters who said issues related to abortion, guns or threats to democracy were the biggest problem facing the country backed Democrats by a wide margin, 66 percent to 14 percent.
For some progressive voters, recent conservative policy victories make it hard to stay on the sidelines.
Lucy Ackerman, a 23-year-old graphic designer in Durham, N.C., said Mr. Biden had repeatedly failed to live up to election promises. She recently registered with the Democratic Socialists of America. Nonetheless, she has committed herself to getting as many Democrats elected this fall as possible.
She says the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe made politics personal: She and her wife married after the decision leaked, out of fear that the court might roll back same-sex marriage rights next.
“The recent events have given me this push to do more,” she said. “I’ve gotten more involved in political efforts locally. I’ve helped sign friends up to vote.”
The liberal backlash against conservative advances in the court appears to have helped Democrats most among white college graduates, who are relatively liberal and often insulated by their affluence from economic woes. Just 17 percent of white college-educated Biden voters said an economic issue was the most important one facing the country, less than for any other racial or educational group.
Over all, white college graduates preferred Democratic control of Congress, 57-36. Women propelled Democratic strength among the group, with white college-educated women backing Democrats, 64-30. Democrats barely led among white college-educated men, 46-45.
Although the survey does not show an unusually large gender gap, the poll seems to offer some evidence that the court’s abortion ruling may do more to help Democrats among women. Nine percent of women said abortion rights was the most important issue, compared with 1 percent of men.
The fight for congressional control is very different among the often less affluent, nonwhite and moderate voters who say the economy or inflation is the biggest problem facing the country. They preferred Republican control of Congress, 62 percent to 25 percent, even though more than half of the voters who said the economy was the biggest problem also said abortion should be mostly legal.
Just 74 percent of the voters who backed Mr. Biden in the 2020 election, but who said the economy or inflation was the most important problem, said they preferred Democratic control of Congress. In contrast, Democrats were the choice of 87 percent of Biden voters who said abortion or guns was the most important issue.
The economy may be helping Republicans most among Hispanic voters, who preferred Democrats to control Congress, 41-38. Although the sample size is small, the finding is consistent with the longer-term deterioration in Democratic support among the group. Hispanics voted for Democrats by almost a 50-point margin in the 2018 midterms, according to data from Pew Research, then President Donald J. Trump made surprising gains with them in 2020.
No racial or ethnic group was likelier than Hispanic voters to cite the economy or inflation as the most important issue facing the country, with 42 percent citing an economic problem compared with 35 percent of non-Hispanic voters.
Republicans also appear poised to expand their already lopsided advantage among white voters without a college degree. They back Republicans by more than a two-to-one margin, 54-23. Even so, nearly a quarter remain undecided compared with just 7 percent of white college graduates.
As less engaged working-class voters tune in, Republicans may have opportunities for additional gains. Historically, the party out of power excels in midterm elections, in no small part by capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the president’s party.
Only 23 percent of undecided voters approved of Mr. Biden’s job performance.
Silvana Read, a certified nursing assistant who lives outside Tampa, Fla., is one of the Hispanic voters whom Republicans will try to sway to capitalize on widespread dissatisfaction with Mr. Biden.
An immigrant from Ecuador, she despised Mr. Trump’s comments about women and foreigners, but voted for him because her husband convinced her it would help them financially. Now she and her husband, 56 and 60, blame Mr. Biden for their falling 401(k)s.
“My husband, he sees the news on the TV, he says, ‘I don’t think I can retire until 75,’” she said. “We can’t afford to finish paying the mortgage.”
Still, her allegiance to the Republican Party does not extend far beyond Mr. Trump. She offered no preference in the fight for control of Congress.
She does not plan to vote in the midterms.
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