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Democrats are hoping Covid-19 stimulus will help them defy history in the midterms

The party in power historically loses control of at least one chamber of Congress in the midterms. Can a popular stimulus law help Democrats win?

President Joe Biden departs the White House for Pennsylvania on March 16 to promote his economic stimulus.
Erin Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Joe Biden is hitting the road to promote something that’s already very popular: money from the government and more Covid-19 vaccines.

After Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan, was passed and signed into law, the president and Vice President Kamala Harris, first lady Jill Biden, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff have fanned out around the country to promote the package. Battleground states have featured heavily on the schedule; Biden traveled to Pennsylvania and will visit Ohio on Tuesday. Harris has traveled to Nevada and Florida, and the president and vice president went together to Georgia — where Biden initially promised to deliver $2,000 stimulus checks.

The heavy promotion of the Biden administration’s first major piece of legislation shows yet another important lesson learned from his years as Obama’s vice president: Telling people exactly what you did for them is good politics.

Many Democrats feel that passing big, bold, and popular economic legislation is the way to defy the historical odds in the 2022 midterms: The party in power typically loses at least one chamber of Congress. Democrats are hoping the infusion of economic stimulus from the American Rescue Plan helps jump-start the economy and ramps up even more vaccine distribution so the country can return to a long-awaited “normal.”

“There’s a real sense of hope,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), who was with Biden at his Pennsylvania stop, told Vox in a recent interview. “People are feeling there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Already public polling shows strong support for stimulus across parties; a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll showed 72 percent of the American public supported the stimulus law, including 69 percent of independents and 44 percent of Republicans.

“Of course it’s going to poll well,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told Vox. “When you give away money, yes. I think it is smart for the Biden administration to go out on the road and sell it.”

Democratic majorities in Congress are very thin; the party has almost no seats to spare in either the House or the Senate. Republicans are already sharpening their attacks on issues including the surge of unaccompanied migrant children and teenagers arriving at the southern border, or parts of the American Rescue Plan that bolster pension funds for states and cities. The 2021 redistricting process could also give House Republicans a structural advantage in the midterms — especially in Southern states including Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.

“Even if voters remember getting this check and it makes them feel good, it’s just going to take a lot of reinforcement and reminder,” Democratic pollster and strategist Molly Murphy told Vox. “Once they’re voting, hopefully times will be back to normal. We’ll have to do a lot of work to let people know this didn’t happen naturally or by accident.”

The politics of the American Rescue Plan seem good for Biden

Throughout the weeks of negotiations between the White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, public polling showed that Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal was broadly quite popular.

The White House argued that the bill was bipartisan — not because it had the support of Republicans in Congress, but because it had the support of a chunk of Republican and independent voters throughout the country.

For instance, a February CBS/YouGov poll found 83 percent of Americans support Congress passing another relief bill. That poll showed there was a larger divide on whether the bill should have been bigger: 39 percent of respondents thought the size of Biden’s bill was “about right” while another 40 percent said they wanted to see a larger package.

There’s a lot in the bill that’s popular, given that it provides generous economic relief to working families. A recent CNN poll found that 85 percent of Americans said they supported larger tax credits for families, and the fact these credits were easier for low-income households to claim. That particular provision had broad support from Republicans and Democrats, including 73 percent of Republicans. A majority of Republicans also approved of more funding to open up schools safely, and $1,400 stimulus checks.

A major reason for Biden’s tour is for him and other White House officials to promote all parts of the bill to the American public. A White House memo from deputy White House chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon obtained by Vox details 10 different parts of the bill the administration has been highlighting, including food insecurity, cutting child poverty in half, and supporting rural health care.

“Biden understands what’s broadly popular to a degree that few Democrats do,” Cook Political Report House editor Dave Wasserman told Vox. “He clearly prioritizes majoritarian economic policies over culture wars, and has avoided some of the pitfalls that turn Democratic politicians into Republican turnout drivers.”

But the broadness of Biden’s $1.9 trillion law means that it also contains things less popular with Republicans. The CNN poll found that just 28 percent of Republicans supported the $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, and Republican pollsters told Vox that mirrors what they’re seeing in private polling as well. Republican consultant and pollster Whit Ayres told Vox that voters dislike provisions to bolster pension funds for teachers, for one thing.

Going into the 2022 midterms, Ayres told Vox he would advise Republican candidates not to be reflexively negative about all of the Biden administration’s policies — some of which are very popular. Instead, Ayres said Republicans should pick their battles.

“The Biden administration is addressing some issues that are overwhelmingly important to the vast majority of Americans,” Ayres said. “I think they should pick their fights carefully with a well-coordinated message.”

Although history suggests that Democrats could be the disadvantaged party going into the midterms because they control Congress and the White House, it’s an open question whether voters will judge Republicans harshly for voting unanimously against the bill in the House and Senate.

“At the end of the day, they are ceding an advantage they’ve had for decades, which is the economy,” said Biden adviser and campaign pollster John Anzalone. “We’d rather have you on our side, but if you’re not going to play ball to help the American people and small businesses, we’re going to do it.”

Political winds can shift very quickly

Given that Democrats are trying to wrest the political advantage on the economy that Republicans have enjoyed for decades, it could be difficult, Democratic pollster and strategist Molly Murphy cautioned.

Looking at battleground state polling, Murphy noticed that voters trusted Democrats more as a party to get them through the Covid-19 pandemic, but also that voters trusted Republicans more to get the economy going once the pandemic was over.

“It was a benefit for Democrats in 2020 and it’s a caution for us in 2022,” she told Vox.

Therein lies an important balance Biden and Democrats need to strike going forward, as they attempt to rev up the economy. Biden plans to turn next to a massive infrastructure proposal that is meant to boost job growth and could cost up to $3 trillion, the New York Times reports.

Plus, it’s important for Biden and Democrats to start building their political case early for the 2022 midterms, because they could be starting from a structural disadvantage.

Congressional redistricting will start in the fall after the US Census releases its new data. Because Republicans swept state legislature races in 2020, many Republican-controlled state legislatures will have purview over how the congressional districts are drawn.

Wasserman, Cook’s House editor, expects congressional Republicans to net at least a handful of seats in the redistricting process and said that Republicans could likely gain the number of seats they’d need to take back the House from redistricting alone — even before they factor in the political environment.

However popular the stimulus bill is, it’s far too early to tell whether it will be the deciding factor in midterm elections that are happening well over a year from now. Ahead of the electoral devastation for Democrats in 2010, there were few major warning signs it would be a bad year. Wasserman noted that Democrats won a tight special election in 2009 to replace Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s seat in upstate New York — only to decisively lose the district a year later.

“It was a poor indicator of what was to come in 2010,” Wasserman told Vox. “I would just point out that political conditions change quickly.”

Correction, March 23: President Joe Biden’s upcoming infrastructure plan could cost up to $3 trillion, the New York Times reported. An earlier version of this article misstated the plan’s price tag.