By Nate Cohn
With President Joe Biden’s approval rating mired in the 30s and with nearly 80% 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% said they preferred Democrats to control Congress compared with 40% who preferred Republican control.
Among likely voters, Republicans led by 1 percentage point, 44% to 43%, 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% 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 such as abortion and gun control for long enough for the 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 the Republicans in the House, but Democrats enjoy the advantages of incumbency and superior fundraising 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 is 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, Illinois.
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 1 in 6 registered voters combined. Those voters preferred Democratic control of Congress, 68% to 8%.
Some of the hot-button cultural issues thought to work to the advantage of Republicans at the beginning of the cycle, such as critical race theory, have faded from the spotlight. Only 4% 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 3 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% of registered voters in September 2020.
The proportion of voters who opposed the court’s decision — 61% — 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 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% to 14%.
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, North Carolina, said 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.
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% of white college-educated Biden voters said an economic issue was the most important one facing the country, less than any other racial or educational group.
Overall, 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% 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% to 25%, 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% of the voters who backed 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% of Biden voters who saw abortion or guns as 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, but President Donald Trump made surprising gains with them in 2020.