November 2, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Biden’s first midterm in 2022 is just like Reagan’s in 1982

Set aside the trees to look at the forest.

Image courtesy of the Daily Beast.
Image courtesy of the Daily Beast.

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I want to ask whether public opinion surveys, in advance of next week’s elections, might be wrong, but first let me say this:

Serious pollsters aren’t biased. Even partisan pollsters aim for reliable numbers. Though partisan, party actors who pay for their information want that information to be more or less accurate. 

So let’s set aside conspiratorial thinking.

Let me also say that by asking whether public opinion surveys might be wrong, I risk encouraging magical thinking. Fact is, the GOP does have a historical advantage. (For about two decades, the party controlling the White House has lost the House.) They have structural advantages, too (gerrymandering, voter suppression laws). We should expect the expected – that the Congress is the Republican Party’s to lose.

So work like hell to stop them.

When I ask whether public opinion surveys might be wrong in advance of next week’s elections, it’s not because I think pollsters are biased. It’s not because I think magically. And it’s not because I have knowledge of them that comes from more than press reports. However, I do think all of these things fit beneath a larger rubric.

Let me also say that by asking whether public opinion surveys are wrong, I don’t presume to know more about them than you do. I’ll leave that to election authorities like Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein. He recounted recently three ways by which the polling could be wrong.

  • There are fewer pollsters than there used to be. “Fewer polls heightens the chance that the estimates will be off,” he wrote.
  • Polling is harder these days. More people use mobile phones, fewer use landlines. More people refuse to talk to pollsters and if they do, fewer speak truthfully. “The old way of doing things that persisted for some 50 years is pretty much gone.”
  • Who’s voting and how? Some states expanded voting. Others restricted voting. “All of this changes how likely different groups are to vote, but not necessarily in predictable ways.”

As for turnout, it “has been unusually high in recent elections, but there is no way to know whether that will continue in 2022,” Bernstein wrote. And anyway, “horse-race polls close to the election also incorporate ‘likely voter’ screens that are really just educated guesses.”

So when I ask whether public opinion surveys might be wrong in advance of next week’s elections, it’s not because I think pollsters are biased. It’s not because I think magically. And it’s not because I have knowledge of them that comes from more than press reports.

However, I do think all of these things fit beneath a larger rubric. 

That rubric is political time.

There are actually two kinds of time, according to political scientist Stephen Skowronek. One is “secular time.” In it, all presidents are forced into the role of problem-solver.

I take “secular time” to be the time we’re all making a fetish of. It’s the politics that we read about, that we debate and that operates in tandem with a separate, hard-to-see kind of time.

Skowronek called that time “political time.” 

“Political time measures the years that unfold between periodic resets of the nation’s ideological trajectory,” Skowronek wrote in 2016. “It tells of the state of the political movements contesting national power, of the expectations of the mobilized polity.” 

“Secular time” is the trees in the forest. That’s where most of us are right now. That’s where we argue about whether public opinion surveys, in advance of next week’s elections, might be wrong.

“Political time,” however, gets us out of the trees. 

It gives us a 30,000-foot view of the forest.


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The last time political time was reset was in 1981, Skowronek wrote, with the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. “The Revolution of 1981 thrust a conservative insurgency into control of the national agenda, and Reagan’s first budget followed up with a programmatic breakthrough that was designed to lock in movement priorities.”

Reagan’s reset “fits well-known historical patterns,” Skowronek said.

Think for example of the rise and fall of Jacksonian Democracy between 1830 and 1860, or the rise and fall of New Deal liberalism between 1930 and 1980, each of which followed a similar rotation of alternating victories for the party that carried forward the received political orthodoxy and the party at odds with it.

Skowronek’s words, written in 2016, turned out to be prescient:

If the election of 2016 follows the patterns of the past in lockstep, we would expect the inauguration of a Republican president in 2017 and with that, a third iteration of orthodox innovation (italics mine).

Because Joe Biden has favors active government, the Republicans say he’s like Jimmy Carter. He’s going to tax and spend his way into a one-term presidency, like Carter.

But the real Carter is Donald Trump. Carter was the third interaction of Roosevelt. Trump was the third interaction of Reagan. Both were one-term presidents. Their electorates had had enough.


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What does that make Biden?

History suggests that he’s like Reagan in that he seems to have reset political time. (We can’t know for years, though.) More people voted for Biden than for any candidate, ever. His election was, like Reagan’s:

a populist intervention, a purge of the entrenched, a thoroughgoing reconstruction of governmental operations,” as Skowronek wrote. “Performance in political time is about reconfiguring government to conform to a particular political ideal or reform principle (my italics).

If historical patterns hold, this year’s midterm will bring the country full circle back to the beginning of the current cycle of political time. 

Reagan’s first midterm was in 1982. Biden’s is in 2022. They are 40 years apart, the full duration of any ideological regime in US history.

In 1982, inflation was high. In 2022, inflation is high. The midterms changed nothing in 1982. Will political time bring us back around?

We’re about to find out.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

2 Comments

  1. Bern on November 3, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    Thanks for this, John. Tho it strains me to see Trump like Carter, I get the point and it supports my feeling (all I got is feelings) that the same electorate that delivered Biden is still here, and perhaps even more motivated by events.
    I have been mightily wrong before (I was stunned by the female vote for Trump), but your argument has legs.
    Cheers.

  2. realsaramerica on November 9, 2022 at 5:13 pm

    There’s a direct line from Reagan’s embrace of the Christian right to extremist Christian Nationalist antisemites like Mastriano and Greene, the insane DeSantis “God sent a leader” ad, and the overturn of Roe. I hope you’re right that this midterm represents the beginning of the pendulum swing back toward the center.

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