Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen several polls showing Democratic Senate candidates running either slightly or significantly ahead of President Biden’s job approval ratings in their state. The latest example was an AARP poll in Pennsylvania that showed Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman outpacing Biden’s dismal 36 percent job approval in the state by 14 points, and leading his GOP opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz, 50 percent to 44 percent.
The good news for Democrats is that they’ve shown an ability to create distance between themselves and an unpopular president. Senators like Mark Kelly in Arizona and Maggie Hassan are making well-documented breaks with Biden on everything from gas tax holiday to immigration. In his most recent TV ad, Senator Kelly tells viewers that he’s “pushing for solutions today, even if it means taking on my own party, like bringing down gas prices by allowing more domestic oil production, ending the gas tax and cutting temporarily red tape to restock shelves.” In New Hampshire, an ad by Sen. Hassan boasts of her bipartisan bonafides, as she tells Granite Staters that she’s “working with Republicans to punish drug companies for raising their prices faster than inflation.”
The big question is whether they’ll be able to keep this distance between themselves and Biden for the next four months, especially as GOP candidates and campaigns start focusing in earning on attaching them to the unpopular president and his policies.
This “political keep-away” game reminds me of watching a breakaway trying to succeed in a cycling race. A breakaway is when one cyclist — or a small group of them — breaks out of the pack (or, in cycling parlance, the peloton) and try to stay ahead to the finish line. Usually, a breakaway happens very early in the race, meaning that this lone athlete has to try and keep the chasing pack at bay for miles and miles on end.
The odds of a breakaway succeeding are slim. The lone cyclist is battling wind and steep climbs, without the benefit of the peloton to help shield them from the elements. Meanwhile, the peloton has the benefit of time and horse power. By working together, they can reach a level of speed a single cyclist can’t. Or, to think of it in political terms, Democrats are quite literally battling a wicked and persistent headwind, while Republicans have the wind at their backs.
For those watching the race on TV, a clock placed in the corner of the screen keeps track of how far in front the breakaway is from the chasing group. As the race gets into the final miles, the time gap between the chasing group and the breakaway ticks down and down, until, usually just a few miles away from the finish line — or more often than not just a few thousand feet from the end — the peloton catches its prey.
We see this same dynamic play out in politics. The party battling the headwind (and trying to distance themselves from their unpopular party brand), often starts out ahead. But, as the election gets closer and voters start to pay closer attention, it gets harder and harder for that party to stay out front. Eventually, the political environment catches them. And, in 2022, it’s hard to believe that the headwinds facing Democrats —especially economic ones — are going to get any less intense between now and November.
While breakaways most often get caught, some manage to stay ahead and cross the finish line first. That usually happens when the peloton is disorganized. Or, they realize too late that they’ve let the lone cyclist get out too far ahead. By the time they realize they’ve miscalculated, it can be too late.
A race where that dynamic is playing out right now is Pennsylvania. A contentious primary has left GOP nominee Oz deeply unpopular. The AARP poll found Oz’s overall net approval rating at -33, compared to Fetterman’s +10. Moreover, while Fetterman has almost universal support among his base (+69), only a bare majority of Republicans give Oz positive marks (53 percent approve to 38 percent disapprove). Before Oz can start chasing down Fetterman, he needs to get his own team organized.
Bottom line: we are still just 20 miles or so into a 100+ mile race. We’ve got a long way to go before we can say whether Democratic candidates can effectively keep themselves ahead of a terrible political environment.