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Behind Biden’s forays into election predictions, an eye on bucking history even as Democrats fret

<i>Evan Vucci/AP</i><br/>President Joe Biden's noticeably sharpened political message is rooted in an intentional effort to ramp up the stakes of a midterm election campaign in its closing days
Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden's noticeably sharpened political message is rooted in an intentional effort to ramp up the stakes of a midterm election campaign in its closing days

By Phil Mattingly, CNN

President Joe Biden‘s noticeably sharpened political message is rooted in an intentional effort to ramp up the stakes of a midterm election campaign in its closing days, advisers say.

But it’s also a window into a view Biden and his top aides hold that there is a path to buck decades of electoral routs for a first-term president’s party — if only a few things can break Democrats’ way.

Biden, in the last four days, has candidly summarized the pendulum swing of the last several months that drove the political narrative from a looming Republican wave, to Democratic momentum, to the current moment of Republicans again eying majorities in the House and Senate.

“The polls have been all over the place,” Biden said Monday in remarks at the Democratic National Committee. “Republicans ahead. Democrats ahead. Republicans ahead. But it’s going to close, I think, with seeing one more shift: Democrats ahead in the closing days.”

It was a candid acknowledgment of a moment that finds Democrats once again scrambling to zero in on a message to blunt GOP momentum, a reality exacerbated by divergent views inside the party of where that message should actually land.

But Biden’s public comments also reflect the view, two weeks from the day votes will be counted, that has Democrats “very much still in the game,” one Democratic official said.

“So far, we’re running against the tide, and we’re beating the tide,” Biden said.

Some Democrats question party’s message

Whether that will hold, particularly in a home stretch in which the small universe of undecided voters historically breaks toward the party out of power, is the definitive outstanding question.

Some in Biden’s own party have begun openly questioning the party’s message — and warning that any momentum that may have existed has given way to clear signs of Republicans regaining the upper hand.

“We’ve managed to suck ourselves back into our own circular firing squad,” one Democratic campaign official said. “It was never as good as people seemed to think it was (at the end of the summer), and it’s not as bad as some are acting now. But it could be if we don’t pull it together.”

The weight of that history, not to mention the acute headwinds created by economic unease that continues to rank first among voter concerns in poll after poll, aren’t lost on Biden or his advisers.

Inflation remains at a four-decade high and there’s nothing the White House or Democrats can do in the final weeks that will change that reality.

Nor is Biden’s own standing, even as White House officials point to approval ratings that have him running slightly ahead of where then-Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were at this stage of their first term.

Biden’s sharpened message, after all, has been delivered in Washington — not standing on stage next to Democratic candidates in the midst of the most heated races across the country.

That will start to change in the days ahead, advisers say, with continued insistence that he will hit the road for bigger campaign events after weeks of intentionally smaller scale official events designed to highlight legislative accomplishments.

But in the meantime, the fact Democrats remain ahead or within the margin of error in critical races across the country has given Biden and his team a sense that things could, to some degree, break their way if some external factors line up to their advantage.

They point to two factors specifically on that front: gas prices, which have been on a steady downward trajectory for the last two weeks, and the third quarter GDP report, which analysts expect to show robust growth after two quarters of contraction.

Officials acknowledge their deficit on the economy, despite cornerstone legislative achievements and a historically fast recovery from the pandemic-era downturn, isn’t going to flip over the course of 14 days.

But given the close correlation between gas prices and Democratic electoral prospects over the course of the last several months, they see an opportunity to at least make some gains — or fight to a draw — with undecided voters or those weighing whether to vote at all in the closing days.

That view, more than anything else, is what’s driving Biden’s closing message.

“Everybody wants to make it a referendum, but it’s a choice between two vastly different visions for America,” Biden said last week.

It’s a statement that runs into decades of history that show otherwise for the party in power in a president’s first midterm election.

But it’s one that officials say has been laid bare in a particularly acute manner by Republicans in recent weeks, whether on abortion, popular programs like Social Security and Medicare, or proposals to undo many of the individual provisions enacted by Biden that consistently poll in the favor of Democrats when taken in isolation.

Biden has also spent the last several weeks attempting to highlight individual issues officials see as key motivators to base voters they need to turn out in a big way to counter clear Republican enthusiasm, whether on abortion rights or Biden’s actions to cancel student loans for some borrowers.

Polling indicates narrow pathways for Democrats

Still, it’s a closing argument that underscores a political moment that remains tenuous.

The burst of optimism among Democrats after a late summer string of major legislative wins and energy driven by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe vs. Wade was viewed by many inside the West Wing as overly optimistic.

The structural dynamics defining House races, in part due to redistricting, have long made holding onto an already exceedingly narrow majority a tall task. Republicans have grown increasingly aggressive in their spending targets in recent days, indicating they view an expanding map — and an environment that is growing more favorable by the day.

But Democratic Senate candidates in battleground races are all polling with narrow leads or within striking distance. The pathway to hold onto the Senate exists, even if a sharp break away from Democrats could imperil several of the party’s biggest new stars.

More than anything else, White House officials are looking at an environment that doesn’t mirror the dynamics that drove sweeping losses in 1994, 2010 or even for Republicans in 2018. Whether that will hold, to some degree, is tied to the very construct Biden has identified.

Do voters view this election as a choice or a referendum? If it’s the latter, Biden is staring at the next two years in office with Republicans in control of the House and Senate.

But as things currently stand, despite the Democratic scramble and Biden’s own implicit acknowledgment that momentum has shifted back toward Republicans, White House officials see a path to bucking decades of history — and blunting a GOP wave.

Whether that optimism is misplaced will be clear in 14 days. But for now, it’s the basis for Biden’s view as voters weigh two years of unified Democratic power in Washington.

“It’s been back and forth with them ahead, us ahead, them ahead — back and forth,” Biden said last week. “I think that we’re going to see one more shift back to our side in the closing days.”

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