WASHINGTON — Hillary Scholten is among the Democrats who had a surprisingly good election night in November.
She became the first Democrat in nearly a half century to win her western Michigan congressional district, bucking expectations about her party’s prospects and helping limit the Republican majority in the U.S. House to just four seats. As President Joe Biden prepares for a coming reelection bid, victories like this have bolstered him and his supporters who believe voters rewarded his steady leadership during a period of economic and political turmoil.
But Scholten, who declined in an interview to outright endorse Biden for reelection, suggested that while the president has accomplished a tremendous amount, he wasn’t the reason for her victory. She won, she insisted, by appealing to voters as someone “focused on putting the people of their district first over national politics.”
That approach tapped into an apparent openness among voters to support Democratic candidates in the midterms even if they weren’t necessarily fond of Biden, a discernment that is notable at a time when politics has become increasingly nationalized. Roughly 1 in 6 voters for Democratic House candidates said they disapproved of Biden’s job performance, according to AP VoteCast, an extensive nationwide survey of the electorate. Two-thirds of these voters said Biden was not a factor, good or bad, in their midterm decisions.
The findings are a warning sign for both parties at the outset of the 2024 presidential campaign. For Republicans, a constant stream of attacks on Biden may have little effect on voters who will accept him over GOP contenders seen as too extreme. But for Biden, the findings also suggest that the surprisingly strong Democratic performance last year might not translate into energy around his reelection.
“We certainly have a problem as a party if individuals have such low satisfaction with the leader of our party,” said Scholten, who also noted she would welcome a competitive Democratic primary, an unlikely prospect for now.
In Michigan and beyond, VoteCast shows that about three-quarters of the midterm voters who backed Democrats but disapproved of Biden were self-identified Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. Most said party affiliation was not very important to them.
This group was more likely than those who approved of Biden to be sour about the economy, the issue that ranked top among them, and blame the president for inflation. They were overwhelmingly pessimistic about the country’s direction. The cohort was younger, more ideologically moderate and from lower-income households.
Shea Comfort of West Chester, Pennsylvania, doesn’t think there’s enough attention on working people who are struggling to feed their families when the “price of living now outweighs our check.” It’s not just Biden who isn’t doing enough, he said, but he called the president “the biggest liar of them all” and a “puppet on a string.”
“None of these guys have seen hungry nights,” the 44-year-old cook said of politicians. “The middle class is getting kicked in the spine.”
Comfort said he’s a Democrat who voted for Biden in 2020 and Gov. Josh Shapiro in 2022, but he’s voted for Republicans before and would again. He said he wouldn’t vote for Biden for reelection.
“We just were so busy focused on getting (Donald) Trump out of here that we took anything,” Comfort said. “But who else can really run that you trust anyway? So, no matter what, it’s like you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.”
These voters made a “political calculus,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the progressive Working Families Party. That was in their best interest — both to allow Democrats to advance their economic agenda and to reject GOP extremism — but that doesn’t mean they’ll make the same decision in 2024.
“I don’t think it makes sense for Democrats to take these voters for granted,” Mitchell said. “What Democrats, what the president should be doing is every single day demonstrating to those voters that they’re going to push as hard as possible for their interests.”
Biden spent much of his State of the Union address this week focusing on so-called kitchen table economic issues that could appeal to voters in a reelection campaign. That approach was successful for some Democrats last year who sought to draw a clear contrast to their Republican opponents.
For example, John Fetterman’s campaign flipped Pennsylvania’s Senate seat by intentionally focusing on him as an individual — not any other Democrat — and his specific opponent, according to Brendan McPhillips, who managed Fetterman’s campaign. Fetterman defeated Republican Mehmet Oz, a celebrity surgeon endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
There may have been underlying frustration with the president, McPhillips said, but “I don’t think it’s the same thing as looking at the Democratic Party or the president side-by-side to the alternative” and choosing the alternative.
In Pennsylvania, the vast majority of voters for Fetterman and Shapiro said they were very concerned that Oz and Republican candidate for governor Doug Mastriano were too extreme. That included the voters who disapproved of Biden.
About 2 in 10 of those who disapproved of Biden yet supported the Pennsylvania Democrats said they did so because they “mostly oppose” the other candidates.
Republican strategists suggest voters with this set of attitudes could defect with the right candidate on the ticket.
In Arizona, this cohort of voters similarly rejected Republican candidates for governor, Kari Lake, and Senate, Blake Masters, both of whom sowed doubt about the results of the 2020 election.
Republican strategist Barrett Marson in Arizona was not surprised by the findings — he himself voted for Democrat Katie Hobbs for governor despite not being a fan of Biden.
“Up and down the ballot, throughout the country, we saw Republican candidates who were far, far, far outside the mainstream of thought,” he said, and they did not appeal to more moderate voters.
This group of swing voters isn’t going away, said Lorna Romero Ferguson, also a Republican strategist in Arizona. Republicans instead will have to “learn from 2022 and focus on a nominee from the primary who can actually win statewide,” she said.
“That voter bloc is going to be less inclined to just be a party loyalist,” said Romero Ferguson. “People have to earn their votes.”
Emilee Brewer, a 21-year-old college student from Bangor, Pennsylvania, identifies as a moderate Republican. She voted for Trump in 2020, but since the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, she’s felt frustrated with the Republican Party and its nominees.
She chose to back Democrats for governor and for U.S. House in 2022 over their Republican opponents.
“I chose the better candidate,” she said. “If the Republican Party wants to continue to grow and be better, we need to realize that we need to elect better candidates.”
No matter who the GOP nominates for president, Biden will have to overcome serious doubts not just about his performance but about his capability and character as well.
Just 15% of voters for Democratic House candidates who disapproved of Biden described him as a strong leader. About half said Biden doesn’t care about people like them, and two-thirds thought he lacks the mental capability to serve effectively as president.
Tyya Strong, a 24-year-old liberal living in West Chester, Pennsylvania, voted for Democrats last year. She often chooses Democrats because they are the “lesser of the two evils,” said Strong, who owns a marketing business.
She voted for Biden in 2020 and would vote for him again but thinks he’s “not as fit as he could be.”
“He’s not the vice president we had when (Barack) Obama was elected. He’s aged,” Strong said. “I think he’s doing a pretty fair job, but … maybe sit the next one out.”