Will Democrats Lose in the Midterms? Probably. But It's the Wrong Question | Opinion

In the satire The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the heroes search for The Answer to "life, the universe, and everything." They find it, only to discover that they never understood what the question was.

Political pundits have the same problem right now. It's common—and will become increasingly so in the coming months—to see analysts point to polling data, history lessons, or both to show that democrats are in Big Trouble in November. Fair enough. But what question are we answering?

If it's the usual one—"Will Republicans take over majorities in Congress?"—then sure, there's a lot of evidence to say yes, they will. But that's not a very profound insight, is it? The President's party has almost always bled seats in midterms, and this year, even a handful of losses will mean a Republican majority. Even Presidents with soaring approval ratings still lose an average of three House seats in midterm elections, and we all know that President Biden's approval is 11 points below his disapproval. Reflecting the Democrats' unpopularity more widely, the "generic ballot" polling question has the Democrats down 2.5 percent.

But what if that's the wrong question?

I'd argue that there are two much more important questions we should be asking as we close in on November's midterms.

Can the Democrats keep things close?

Instead of asking whether the Democrats are going to lose their majority—a question we can all agree is best answered with a yes—I'd argue that we should be asking whether the Democrats can keep things close. If you're thinking that "close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, think again: There's a huge difference between losing narrowly and getting blown out, for the same reason that you'd rather be down a field goal than two touchdowns at halftime.

The Democrats
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 06: U.S. President Joe Biden (C) signs the Postal Service Reform Act into law during an event with (L-R) Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and retired letter carrier Annette Taylor and others in the State Dining Room at the White House on April 6, 2022 in Washington, DC. A part of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s controversial 10-year restructuring plan, the law provides $107 billion to modernize and streamline the long-beleaguered Postal Service. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For one thing, if Democrats can hold just the Senate, they retain critical levers of power that are currently making a real difference. Consider the fact that President Biden has been getting his nominees for federal judges confirmed at a record pace, offsetting some of President Trump's massive reshaping of the judiciary. The Democratic-led Senate has successfully confirmed 369 of 521 nominees for key agency positions so far, and given congressional gridlock, these are the people shaping most of what is happening in government.

As just one example, note that the Trump Administration rolled back 112 environmental rules, 30 of them on emissions. Now, Biden's agencies are overturning those changes, including critical rules on fuel standards, gas pipelines, and methane emissions. They need the leadership in place to keep that going.

But even if Democrats lose the Senate, keeping the margins narrow means having to take out fewer Republican office-holders in 2024. That matters because incumbents usually start off with about a three-point election advantage.

Moreover, consider the fact that slim House majorities are much harder to manage than fat ones. Just look at Nancy Pelosi's recent headaches; the most vulnerable representatives are always on the hot seat. A big majority allows those swing seat members to go against their party on the toughest votes and look bipartisan. Without that shield, the biggest targets are exposed.

The good news for Democrats is that the chances of limiting their losses are actually fairly high. Modeling from highly-regarded analyst Alan Abramowitz suggests that Democrats currently have an even shot to hold the Senate and are on track to lose only about 20 House seats. It's not great, but it's within striking distance, and would be hardly a "shellacking."

But there's a second and even better question we should be asking, and it's this:

Can Democrats win enough races to protect American democracy from disaster?

America is likely facing an existential crisis in 2024 from Big Lie MAGAists planning to subvert elections to reinstate Donald Trump or a near clone. Bill Clinton once said that our priority was to "save Social Security first." Today, the mantra has to be "save democracy first."

Can Democrats accomplish that? Yes. Step one is to limit their 2022 losses for the reasons noted above, and also because if they can stay positioned to win back enough seats in 2024, it lowers the chances that Republicans can pull another Eastman Memo maneuver, muck with the electoral count, and have the election decided by cronies in the House.

Second, Democrats must focus on keeping the Big Lie cabal from winning strategically important offices and legislative majorities in swing states. Closely divided bodies that could flip in 2022 include chambers in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Secretaries of State will be at the epicenter of the assault on elections, so Democrats must hold offices like Michigan and flip offices in states like Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada.

Just to give a sense of the stakes, in Colorado the Democratic Secretary of State, a person who has received countless death threats, is up against a Republican county clerk facing criminal charges for tampering with voting equipment and who a judge barred from overseeing elections. In Pennsylvania, the Republican nominee for governor is a leading voice in the election denial movement and gets to pick the Secretary of State.

Democrats must win as many of these critical races as possible.

And is that do-able? Yes.

Posing the right question means focusing on what you really care about. Democratic doomscrolling of the midterm election is understandable—it has the same appeal as watching the Johnny Depp trial—but what has to matter most is making sure there are still elections to care about in the future, to say nothing of the broader aim the party is supposed to stand for: an inclusive and ever-expanding vision of opportunity. Those are the real goals. And yes, Democrats can still achieve them, even if they lose in the midterms.

Of course, the Democrats could still turn this around completely: There are historical outliers where the President's party held serve, and plenty of times where Republicans nominated such extreme candidates that they lost winnable races.

But in general, the basic positioning of the parties tends to hold in the runup to an election, while jolts to the race tend to work against the party that holds the White House. Which is why Democrats should be focused on the achievable goals that are very much in reach.

Matt Robison is a writer, podcast host, and former congressional staffer.

The views in this article are the writer's own.