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The New Politics of Bifurcation

Column: The electorate tunes Biden out—and why it matters for November

• August 26, 2022 5:00 am

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The 2022 election grows more mysterious by the day. Republicans enter this cycle with the wind at their backs: President Biden is unpopular, voters say we are in a recession, Democratic majorities are razor-thin, and midterms favor the opposition party. The issue set—inflation, border security, crime, and the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan—is well-suited for Republican candidates. Many Democrats are retiring. GOP voters are enthusiastic. And did I mention the president is unpopular?

Yet Democrats are increasingly bullish about their electoral prospects. They have closed the gap with Republicans on the congressional generic ballot and lead the GOP for the first time this year. They are even or tied with Republicans in (admittedly spotty) polling averages of seven marquee Senate races. Since June 24, when the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade and restored abortion law to the political sphere, Democrats have outperformed their expected margins in special elections. The reversal of Roe has mobilized an important Democratic constituency: voters, especially women, with high levels of educational attainment. On August 2, Kansans dealt pro-life forces a setback by defeating a referendum that would have forbidden state judges from reading abortion rights into the state constitution. On August 23, Democrat Pat Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro in a closely watched congressional special election in New York. Ryan staked his campaign on preserving abortion rights. Molinaro focused on inflation. Voters had a clear-cut choice between the two parties' messages. Abortion won.

Suddenly, the political class is revising its expectations for the fall. "Red Wave Looks More Like a Ripple," says the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter. "Democrats sense a shift in the winds, but it may not be enough," says the New York Times. "Democrats' Outlook for Midterm Elections Brightens After New York Win," says the Wall Street Journal. The Journal‘s op-ed page says the GOP has an abortion problem. The problem? Republicans have no idea what to say about abortion. Some are reticent, some are all over the place, and others support restrictions that go against public opinion. The Democrats are free to define the landscape and press the attack that Republicans will take away women's rights. It's a replay of past Democratic accusations that the GOP will cut entitlements such as Medicare or Social Security—except this entitlement is sexual, personal, and not a question of dollars and cents. This summer, Democrats have spent tens of millions of dollars on pro-choice television ads targeting Republicans. Why? Because it works.

There may be more behind the changing dynamics of this election than falling gas prices and abortion rights. Typically, midterm results depend on a president's approval rating. If that were the case this year, Democrats would be running behind expectations. As it stands, Democrats are running ahead of Biden's approval rating in the congressional generic ballot, in Senate polling, and in special elections. Voters are not translating their disapproval of Biden into disgust with Democrats in general. They are not factoring Biden into their down-ballot calculations. They have tuned him out.

Jeff Bell, the late Republican consultant, wrote an essay 22 years ago that resonates today. Called "The Politics of Bifurcation," Bell's article tried to explain why primary voters in both the Democratic and Republican parties during the 2000 election cycle were more interested in a candidate's character than in political ideology. The reason, Bell argued, was that voters held a "bifurcated" view of the Clinton presidency: They disapproved of Clinton's personal conduct but applauded his job performance. Hence, they elevated candidates who displayed honor and integrity over candidates who proposed major policy changes.

That helped figures like John McCain, George W. Bush, and Bill Bradley, and hurt the politician with the closest ties to Clinton the man: Vice President Al Gore. "Without the bifurcation," Bell wrote in the March 13, 2000, issue of The Weekly Standard, "the Republicans would have far less chance than they do of retaking the White House, given the positive economic and social trends over which Bill Clinton and Al Gore preside." The split decision on Clinton put Bush in the Oval Office—with an assist from the Supreme Court.

A generation ago, voters differentiated between their views of the president's personality and of his job performance. The Democrats picked up five House seats one month before the Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached Clinton. Might it be that voters now distinguish between their views of Biden the president and of down-ballot Democrats? In the new politics of bifurcation, voters separate their attitudes toward Biden, whom they see as a lost cause, from their feelings toward the Democratic Party. They might not be happy with either their president or the economy. But unlike last year, they see today's Republicans as more frightening than the alternative. The upshot: a Democratic revival.

The new politics of bifurcation explains why 18 percent of voters disapprove of Biden but say they will vote for Democrats in the fall. It explains why a recent Pew survey found that Biden's job approval is a pathetic 37 percent, but voters who disapprove "not so strongly" of Biden favor Democratic candidates by double digits. The not-so-strong disapprovers are a mix of voters who probably were never enthusiastic about Biden to begin with but accepted him as the best way to remove his predecessor from the White House. The economic mismanagement, border insecurity, breakdown of law and order, persistence of viral threats, and chaotic international scene of the past year and a half remind them of Biden's many flaws. Still, they are not ready to embrace Republican candidates who hold marginal positions on abortion and long for a Trump restoration.

Bifurcation works in paradoxical ways. The last two Democratic presidents had terrible midterms but rebounded in time for reelection. That might not happen with Biden. The electorate views him so poorly that it may be difficult for him to recover—and his job will be more difficult still if surprising Democratic strength in November deprives him of Republican foils in Congress. CNN's July poll found that 75 percent of Democrats want someone other than Biden to run for president in 2024. The most important number in the Pew poll was 35 percent. It's the percentage of voters who say Biden is "mentally sharp." He's not getting sharper.

The safe bet is that undecided voters will swing toward the opposition party in the closing days of the campaign. In this likely scenario, Biden's dismal approval rating will bring down the Democratic congressional majorities. That, after all, is how the world works. And yet the world hasn't been working as expected for the last six years. The most unpopular candidate in the history of the Gallup poll became the first U.S. president with no experience in government or the military. That president became the first chief executive to lose reelection in 28 years. We have had a once-in-a-century pandemic, the largest single-year jump in violent crime ever recorded, the breakdown of the southern border, the worst inflation in 40 years, the first cross-border invasion in Europe since 1945, and a Supreme Court decision that reversed a half-century-old precedent. Things are weird. And if I am right about the new politics of bifurcation, things are about to get weirder.