There are less than two months left before the midterm elections.
Lately, Democrats have become more hopeful and Republicans more nervous as the polling lead the GOP enjoyed earlier in the year has eroded.
The battle for the Senate looks, for now, to be balanced on a knife edge, even as the GOP remains favored to take over the House.
Candidates and local issues will clearly be vital in many races. But this is a national election too.
Here are the five biggest issues that will determine the outcome.
A man shops at a supermarket on Wednesday, July 27, 2022, in New York. An inflation gauge that is closely tracked by the Federal Reserve, Friday, July 29, jumped 6.8% in June from a year ago, the biggest increase in four decades, and leaving Americans with no relief from surging costs. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Inflation is the single biggest political liability the Democrats face.
President Biden polls worse on inflation than on any other issue. In an ABC News-Ipsos poll last month, for example, just 29 percent of adults approved of Biden’s handling of inflation.
The low marks are hardly surprising given that inflation hit a 40-year high in June, at 9.1 percent.
The latest figures, for July, saw the headline number taper off to 8.5 percent. But the slight reduction is cold comfort to millions of struggling Americans.
Inflation can be a devastating political issue because, unlike many other topics, it affects every voter — including those who do not follow every twist and turn in politics — in ways that cannot be ignored.
Democrats hope that inflation will continue to fall as supply chains return to normal after the massive disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also point to the Inflation Reduction Act as a new weapon in the battle, especially when it comes to its capacity to bend the cost of prescription drugs downward. The law allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices for the first time ever.
Still, there is no real question that inflation will weigh Democrats down in November.
The question is, by how much?
FILE- Demonstrators gather at the federal courthouse in Austin, Texas. following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, on June 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
If inflation is a headwind for Democrats, the same is true for Republicans and abortion.
The catalyst for these troubles is the June decision by the Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade.
The GOP’s edge in opinion polls has been declining since that day. And while other factors may have also played their part, such as gas prices ticking down at roughly the same time, abortion clearly plays a key role.
Several opinion polls have indicated that around 60 percent of the population supports Roe, the 1973 decision that enshrined a constitutional right to abortion.
There have been even more concrete examples of the political potency of the issue, too.
An August ballot initiative in Kansas, a conservative state, was won by the pro-abortion rights side by almost 20 points.
A special House election in New York’s 19th District — a classic bellwether — was won by a Democrat who put abortion rights at the heart of his campaign.
Some Republicans, including Blake Masters, the party’s Senate candidate in Arizona, have deleted references to their own anti-abortion positions from their websites.
But that might not be enough to neutralize the issue.
Right now, it looks like the GOP could have real trouble, especially with female voters, in November.
Former President Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and “MAGA Republicans”
Trump is hitting back hard against the Mar-a-Lago probe. (AP Photo)
Former President Trump was never going to retire to the sidelines of American political life. But the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8 has injected him right back into the center of the midterms campaign.
The investigation adds to legal challenges the former president already faces.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, and a Georgia probe is looking into efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election results in that state.
Trump, meanwhile, is hitting back hard against the Mar-a-Lago probe. In a speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., last weekend, the former president described his enemies as “tyrants” and the DOJ and FBI as “vicious monsters.”
The broader picture is one in which Trump and Biden are battling each other once again, almost two years on from their presidential contest.
Biden, who was reluctant to attack Trump frontally for much of the early phase of his presidency — he would sometimes obliquely refer to Trump as “the former guy” — has changed tack.
In recent weeks, he has blasted “ultra-MAGA Republicans” as a danger to American democracy and branded elements of current conservative ideology “semi-fascism.”
Trump, for his part, has called Biden an “enemy of the state.”
Opinions about Trump are so fixed that the whole debate might not shift many voters from one column to the other.
But it has certainly affected the framing of the contest, which could have a direct impact on turnout.
FILE – A group of Brazilian migrants make their way around a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Ariz., seeking asylum in the U.S. after crossing over from Mexico, June 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia, File)
Illegal immigration remains a huge issue with conservative voters and in right-leaning media, even as it is not seen as so big a problem among liberals.
Concerns about border security often get portrayed as xenophobic or racist. But many voters who don’t fit into either of those categories clearly have concerns about the huge numbers of unauthorized border crossings that are taking place.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Border Patrol agents had made more than 1.8 million arrests at the southern border during the current fiscal year. By the time the fiscal year ends at the end of this month, that number is expected to have surpassed 2 million for the first time ever.
In an Economist-YouGov poll last month, Biden’s ratings on immigration were dismal. Overall, 49 percent of adults disapproved of his handling of the issue while just 30 percent approved.
Republican voters, as expected, were overwhelmingly negative. But they were joined in that opinion by self-described independents, a mere 17 percent of whom backed Biden’s performance on the issue.
Democrats ignore figures like those at their peril.
FILE – President Joe Biden speaks outside Independence Hall, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)
Midterm elections are always, at some level, a referendum on the party in power.
Biden and the Democrats also have to contend with the historical pattern in which a president’s party almost always loses seats in the first midterms of his tenure.
Biden has had some success in broadening the focus of this year’s campaign. But voters will still be rendering a verdict on him in November.
That doesn’t augur well for Democrats. Biden’s approval ratings have bounced back to some degree from a low point at the height of summer — but they’re still nothing to write home about.
In the average maintained by data and polling site FiveThirtyEight, Biden was 11 points underwater — 53 percent disapproval against 42 percent approval — as of Thursday evening.
The president has, to be sure, hit a hot streak recently. In addition to passing the Inflation Reduction Act, he has also enacted the CHIPS bill, to boost the semiconductor industry. He has expanded health care to better cover veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. And he has announced executive action to lighten the burden of student loan debt.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Democrats will also try to remind voters of earlier or broader successes, such as prodigious job creation, the passage of the 2021 American Rescue Plan, and the infrastructure bill Biden signed into law late last year.
Right now, though, it’s very hard to see Biden’s popularity surging between now and November.
If he dooms his party to the loss of even one chamber of Congress, he will likely be hamstrung from further significant action for the rest of his first term.
If that happens, all 2024 bets are off.