Understanding American politics today means understanding the forces already shaping next year’s midterm elections to the U.S. Congress. Less than half a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, the American political class is beginning to look ahead to nationwide campaigns in 2022—races that will be a referendum on the president and his party with major consequences for the rest of his time in office. A U.S. president’s party typically loses ground in midterms, and Democrats only control Congress by the narrowest of margins. A Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, the Senate, or both would greatly diminish Democratic governance. But considering the strangeness of this whole moment—the nation recovering from a once-in-a-century pandemic and the Republican Party still in thrall to former President Donald Trump, who still refuses to admit his election defeat in 2020—what will determine how America’s two parties fare?

Larry Sabato, the founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says these midterms are “up in the air” more than they would be in a typical election cycle. Republicans may benefit from structural advantages such as voting restrictions they’re enacting and congressional districts they’ve drawn in their favor. Their voters may be fueled by fury over the “big lie” that last year’s election was stolen from Trump. But many of the highly educated and affluent Americans most likely to vote in midterm elections—people who historically tended to vote Republican—turned against Trump and supported Democrats over the past four years. Sabato thinks that the former president’s refusal to cede the political stage is helping his opponents—and there’s still the possibility that he and his associates may be indicted.

Graham Vyse: What are the main things that’ll determine the outcome of next year’s elections?

Larry Sabato: Having been around a long time, I've seen several factors really matter in midterms. At the top of the list is always presidential job approval—not popularity, not favorability, but actual job approval. Over the past five months, Biden’s has been remarkably steady. He’s basically two to five points over the 51 percent of support he got in last year’s election. That’s about where a Democratic president would have to be—theoretically—to hold onto the House and the Senate.

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