The midterm elections on Nov. 8th will be a pivotal moment for the Biden administration and U.S. politics. The outcome will also have significant implications for transatlantic relations and the global economy.

If Republicans win just one of the two chambers of Congress − the House of Representatives or the Senate − they would gain de facto veto power that allows them to block the Democrat’s legislative agenda.

The chances of this happening are high. There is a distinct pattern in American politics according to which the ruling party loses voters in the first midterm elections after capturing the White House. In addition, the Biden administration has been haunted by high inflation and gas prices, which dragged down the President’s approval ratings.

Against this backdrop, it seems likely that his administration is going to lose control of at least one chamber of Congress and will be facing a similar gridlock for the rest of its term as its predecessors, who faced a divided government, did.

But there remains a viable pathway to maintain a majority for Biden and Democrats. Recent legislative gains and the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion opened up opportunities for the Democratic Party to boost turnout among suburban voters, women and independents.

And in the few Senate races that will decide the fate of the chamber, Democrats are extremely competitive. Will Democrats be able to defy history and defend their narrow majority in Congress against all odds?

Why Democrats may lose

History is not on the Democrats’ side. As the longer-term patterns show, with only two exceptions (1998 and 2002), the president’s party has lost seats in the House of Representatives in every midterm election since World War II.

Moreover, voters opted for change in seven out of the last eight midterm elections. During the last four presidents’ time in office, his party even lost control of both the House and Senate.

Beyond these historical patterns, the prospect for the Democrats to defend their narrow majorities in the House and Senate is hampered by Biden’s persistently low approval ratings. After almost two years in office, Biden’s approval ratings are among the lowest of any president (including Donald Trump) in the past 70 years.

To make matters worse, the economy isn’t working in the administration’s favor or the Democrats’ either. Americans are struggling with the highest inflation rate in 40 years and an economy that threatens to slide into recession. Inflation has taken hold in much of the economy, and it will take some time for the magnitude of price increases to recede.

Against this backdrop, conventional wisdom would indicate that the Democrats are all but certain to follow historical precedent and lose both chambers in the midterm elections. However, despite the adverse circumstances, the outlook for the Democrats is not completely hopeless.

Do Democrats nevertheless have a chance?

In August, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration’s signature seven-hundred-billion-dollar package which contains significant investments in health care, infrastructure and clean energy, was finally passed. The passage of this bill demonstrated that Democrats are able to govern and deliver on their campaign promises.

Democrats had already received a new tailwind in June from the Supreme Court’s highly controversial decision on abortion rights. In its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, the Supreme Court effectively removed the federal guarantee of abortion rights and opened the door to a wave of state legislation seeking to ban abortion. This decision is particularly unpopular with women and suburban voters and will likely mobilize the Democrats’ core constituency in the midterm elections.

It is a strange irony that Democrats also received an unintentional boost from their biggest political enemy: Donald Trump. During the Republican primaries, the former president supported candidates loyal to him and his lies about his 2020 election defeat, even if they were politically inexperienced and held extremist views.

As a result, the Republican Party now has potentially unelectable fringe candidates in pivotal Senate races like Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona who are hurting the GOP’s chances of taking back the Senate. 

A look into the crystal ball

What are the chances for the Democratic party to defend its narrow majority in both houses of Congress? According to recent polls and forecasts, the prospects for the Democrats to remain the strongest party in the House of Representatives are slim.

The Republicans are likely to win a majority of seats due to a combination of the political winds and favorably gerrymandered maps across the country. The situation is different, however, in the elections for the Senate. Here the race is very close.

The website FiveThirtyEight which focuses on opinion poll analysis sees the chances of the Democrats defending their majority in the House of Representatives at only 17 percent but the probability of them holding on to the Senate at 50 percent (as of November 1, 2022). Others predict a similar election outcome.

But how reliable are these polls? In the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, the Republican party performed much better than the polls had predicted. This has raised many questions about the accuracy and validity of political polls in the U.S. (and elsewhere). Therefore, alternative forecasting tools are being used to seek new ways of predicting election outcomes.

Crowdsourced forecasting the ongoing collection of forecasts (typically in the form of a probability) from a large, diverse group of people, which are aggregated into a “crowd” forecast about a future event is one. These crowd forecasts are often more accurate than any individual forecast, as this technique reduces error and bias through aggregation.

The Crowdsourced forecasting platform RANGE (Rethinking Assumptions in a New Geostrategic Environment), as of November 1, 2022, predicts a 54.83 percent chance that the Republican party will control both the House of Representatives and the Senate following the elections on Nov. 8th.

By applying cutting-edge machine-learning techniques to predict the election outcomes, The Economist’s US midterms 2022 statistical forecast model runs 10,000 simulated elections based on polling, demographics, fundraising and historical results each day.

According to this election model, Democrats are likely to lose their majority in the Senate. Republicans win a majority in 51 out of 100 simulations and are predicted to win 46⁠–⁠54 seats.

In other words, according to The Economist’s election model, Republicans have a 51 percent chance of winning the Senate. For the House of Representatives the model predicts a 75 percent chance of Republicans to winning a majority (as of November 1, 2022).

The likely outcome and possible consequences

Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the election outcome, however, Democrats are likely, to lose at least one chamber of Congress
− presumably the House of Representatives. This outcome would significantly limit the Biden administration’s ability to implement its legislative plans. The result would be political gridlock, which would also affect U.S. foreign policy and transatlantic relations.

Agreements between the Biden administration and the EU in trade, technology, and climate policy, that might require legislation, would have little chance of becoming law because they could be blocked by a Republican majority in Congress.

This is also likely to limit the U.S. administration’s room for maneuver in the ongoing negotiations of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), particularly regarding to agreements on joint action to combat climate change. Although the Republican Party has abandoned its earlier climate denialism, it still gives the issue low priority.

The rivalry with China is almost the only political issue on which Democrats and Republicans can still find common ground. It should come as no surprise that Republicans, should they win a majority in one or both houses, they will pressure the Biden administration to get European allies, especially Germany, to take a tougher stance on China as well.

About the author

Peter Walkenhorst is Senior Project Manager in Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program, where he works on transatlantic relations and European-Chinese relations. Previously, he was a member of the foundation’s Germany and Asia Program, responsible for projects on the systemic conflict with China and social cohesion in Asia. 

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