Getting Started: The 2022 Project

The path to Democratic power by 2040 begins with the 2022 midterms.

If history holds, 2022 should be a terrible year for Democrats. In every first midterm since 1900, the incumbent president’s party has lost seats in the House, with the unique exceptions of 1934 and 2002.

As a result of the losses in the 2020 cycle, Democrats have a slender majority in the House of Representatives today. The Senate has proven to be more unpredictable, with seven elections where the incumbent party has made gains.

The literature broadly identifies three potential reasons for the durability of the negative midterm effect. Two theories, presidential performance and presidential penalty, ascribe the resulting loss in the midterm to voter desire to blame the president and the president’s party for the negative state of affairs or to place a “check” on the president’s party.

A third more structural argument, surge and decline, argues that, as a function of the midterm turnout dynamics, the coalition of people who turned out for the president do not show up two years later.

The Senate picture is more unsettled, but the times when the incumbent president’s party has picked up seats – like 2018 when the GOP captured seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota – have more recently occurred where the baseline of the state is conservative or liberal enough to offset midterm effects. The literature also suggests that the Senate midterm effects are weaker against the incumbent party in the first midterm than in the second.

Holding the line, or even making serious gains, in 2022 will depend on counteracting nearly a century of political behavior. The approaches identified below may not fully prevent losses in November 2022. But the more that we can avoid disaster then, the more we can achieve by 2040.

Create a strong policy and messaging foundation

The “First 100 Days” of a new presidential administration is not the only window for policy reform. But it does likely represent the best opportunity for the Biden Administration to deliver on key policy gains. Momentum and enthusiasm around the first 100 days can keep the base and supporters engaged.

Backing that up with a messaging apparatus that does not let up can keep supporters feeling positive and motivated to defend the gains of the first two years. Building wins for both progressive and more moderate wings can avoid the divisions that Republicans will seek to exploit.

Deliver for the supporters and the country

In crafting the first two years, Democrats need to pay particular attention to making sure that the supporters most likely to de-energize (young people and communities of color) and most likely to swing back see the real tangible results of the initial policy program.

Harkening back to the 2010 midterm, we can see some of the consequences of getting this wrong. The Recovery bill was too small, so by 2010 we were still bottoming out in the Recession.

The Affordable Care Act had passed, but we had not yet gotten healthcare to more people. We need to implement our policy agenda in a way that will ensure that people feel the results before they decide whether and who to vote for in 2022.

The two times where the incumbent party has averted meaningful losses in the modern era, 1934 and 2002, have been “rally around the flag moments.” If the Biden Administration can deliver an end to the pandemic and a substantial economic recovery, it needs to message that voting for Democrats will deliver more results in the years ahead.

There is nothing more critical to 2022 than successfully achieving a popular agenda that solves the current crises we face quickly.

Manage redistricting and open the democracy

Part of withstanding the shock of a midterm is having enough of a partisan advantage that a 5-6% swing is not enough to unseat the majority. While we were hopeful that state legislative results would give us that cushion, it has not come to pass.

Therefore, Democrats in blue states will need to push for maps that protect and expand representation. Democrats in purple-to-red states will have to use their procedural tools to keep district lines manageable.

With these efforts, we can limit the sort of redistricting edge that could give Republicans an eight-year hold on the House of Representatives.

Similarly, we must address the failings of our democracy in states where Democrats hold power. A better democracy brings a more resilient Democratic Party.

Nowhere is this more critical than in New York, where vulnerable incumbents Upstate and on Long Island will need strong Democratic turnout to survive and protect the Democratic majority in the next cycle. HR 1, the Democrats’ voting rights legislation in Congress, must be passed to open our democracy by 2022.

Assume defense

Entering midterms, incumbent parties often overstate to donors and supporters about the likelihood of gains and pickups. Democrats need to be extremely clear: 2022 is by-and-large about holding onto what has been won, in order to be in a hopefully strong position in a 2024 presidential cycle.

Investments need to go into shoring up the most vulnerable candidates first.

“Incumbent protection” dollars are harder to raise. We should know, as EveryDistrict has generally avoided raising money for incumbents because outside activist dollars are more interested in pickups than in protecting what we have. Still, we will need to focus our supporters toward shoring up our most vulnerable first.

In terms of offense, the chances to make further gains in the Senate do stand out. Due to an unsuccessful 2016, Democrats have fewer vulnerable seats to protect. Real investments in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin could pay dividends.

To outline how we withstand the 2022 midterm and build for a long-term majority toward 2040, we next lay out the investments to make now to build a program for 2021 and 2022.