Biden, Democrats head into 2022 midterms with feistier message and slightly better polls. Is it enough?

*** BESTPIX *** WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: President Joe Biden gives remarks in Statuary Hall of the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2022 in Washington, DC. One year ago, supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for Joe Biden. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775759038 ORIG FILE ID: 1237564065
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WASHINGTON – Mary Ann Chaffin, an 86-year-old retired small-business owner from Aurora, Colorado, believes the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was "disgusting" and "very disheartening." She's concerned democracy in the U.S. is "in peril."

She wishes "more brave Republicans" would condemn the attack waged by supporters of former President Donald Trump one year ago.

And yet Chaffin isn't ready to commit to voting for Democratic congressional candidates in this year's midterm elections. A self-described independent, Chaffin is no fan of President Joe Biden's Build Back Better social-spending agenda.

"Thank God for Joe Manchin," she said, praising the moderate West Virginia Democrat who is blocking the bill in the Senate.

"It disturbs me what's happening to the Republican Party, and it disturbs me what's happening to the Democratic Party as we lean more and more towards socialism," Chaffin said.

More: Biden unleashes a year's worth of anger at Trump in Jan. 6 speech, blasting him as an undemocratic liar

Led by President Joe Biden's searing speech on Thursday – in which he pinned blame for the Jan. 6 attack squarely on Trump – Democrats head into the new year with a reinvigorated message warning that the fate of democracy is at stake as Trump and his Republican allies continue to push false allegations that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

But Democrats face a risk if they make saving democracy their campaign mantra in the 2022 midterms. Polling suggests their warnings haven't resonated with voters in their uphill bid to keep control of Congress. And with rising inflation and soaring COVID-19 cases, Democrats could appear tone deaf to pocketbook issues if they pin their political hopes on the more abstract issue of preserving democracy.

"There's not much evidence that making democracy itself the issue is effective for winning votes when other issues are more important to voters," said Matt Grossman, who heads the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.

"Overall, (Democrats) understand that this is not a top-tier concern for most swing voters," he said, predicting "it is generally not going to be the message to run in ads."

More: A year after Jan. 6, Americans say democracy is in peril but disagree on why: USA TODAY/Suffolk poll

*** BESTPIX *** WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: President Joe Biden gives remarks in Statuary Hall of the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2022 in Washington, DC. One year ago, supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for Joe Biden. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775759038 ORIG FILE ID: 1237564065
*** BESTPIX *** WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: President Joe Biden gives remarks in Statuary Hall of the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2022 in Washington, DC. One year ago, supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for Joe Biden. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775759038 ORIG FILE ID: 1237564065

A disconnection for voters

Economic woes are still top of mind concerns among voters, according to Gallup's latest tracking poll in November, with 26% of voters saying economic issues such as rising inflation and jobs are the most important problem facing the nation.

Twenty-one-percent cited the government and poor leadership as a top issue, while 13 percent of Americans said the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest problem. Elections and election reform did not even break 1%.

That doesn't mean the majority of voters weren't unnerved by the Jan. 6 attack.

A new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll found the majority of Americans, 53%, believe the Jan. 6 attack sought to overturn legitimate election results, compared to 29% who said the riot was a protest aimed at preventing election fraud.

Fifty percent of Americans said the rioters acted criminally, and only 5% said they acted appropriately. Another 38% said they "went too far, but had a point."

More: Jan. 6 review: Biden blasts Trump in speech, Dick Cheney hailed in surprise Capitol visit for ceremony

Most voters are not connecting Jan. 6 to new voting restrictions passed by Republican-controlled legislature in many states, even those most of the new limits are inspired by Trump's false allegations of voter fraud. In his speech, Biden called the measures "wrong, undemocratic and frankly, un-American." He and other Democrats have argued the restrictions are designed to suppress turnout among voters of color.

Yet the poll found 48% of Americans believe the laws are intended to make elections more secure, while 42% said they are designed to make it easier for Republicans to win elections.

Lorreta Lawson, a 50-year-old home life security tech who lives in Phoenix, said she doesn't believe what happened on Jan. 6 will be at the forefront of most voters' minds come November.

But after witnessing multiple calls for audits and recounts of the 2020 presidential election in Arizona, she fears a GOP takeover of the House.

"If they take the House, nothing is going to be done about Jan. 6," Lawson, who is an independent, told USA TODAY. "I think they're going to pretty much push it up under the rug and forget it, but that's something you can't forget."

Tina Shupp, 58, a parks and recreation employee from New Oxford, Pa., said she has "serious" concerns about the Jan. 6 attack.

An independent voter who leans Democrat, Shupp called it "pathetic" that so few Republicans showed up for Thursday's remembrances at the U.S. Capitol. She said she hopes voters will consider democracy as a top issue in the midterms but isn't optimistic.

"I think people believe what they believe and you can't tell them anything," she said.

A glimmer of hope for Democrats?

Democrats don't need to be reminded of their headwinds in this election cycle.

Biden's approval ratings are hovering around 40%, and he is struggling to deliver on his agenda. Inflation and COVID-19 cases aren't going away, and congressional redistricting in Republican-led state legislatures will boot some Democrats from office. Then there's the historical reality: a sitting president's party typically loses seats in Congress during the first midterm election.

So far this election cycle, more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress have announced they will not seek re-election, a sign of the difficult election climate facing the party.

But Biden's speech – and a trip to Atlanta on Tuesday where he will talk about voting-rights legislation – come as Democrats have rebounded slightly from a low-point in November.

The USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll found Democrats have reclaimed the lead in the generic congressional ballot, with Americans saying they favor unnamed Democratic candidates over Republicans 39%-37% in November's midterm elections. That erased an 8-percentage-point advantage Republicans held in a November survey by USA TODAY/Suffolk University.

Democrats made gains in the latest survey among a broad cross-section of voters, including independents, women and seniors.

Still, it's not a reason for Democrats to celebrate. In 2020, Democrats held a 10-percentage-point advantage in the USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll. But when voters cast their ballots, Republicans flipped 15 Democratic House seats even though Biden carried the top of the ticket. Overall, the GOP gained a net of 12 seats, despite trailing in the generic congressional poll.

Republicans even lagged in surveys conducted before their party made big electoral gains in 2010 and 2014, the last two midterms during a Democratic presidency.

"It's certainly a green shoot in what was a scene of dying weeds," David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said of the gains Democrats seem to have made in the most recent survey.

Paleologos attributed the GOP edge in November's survey to education issues, including so-called critical race theory, which Republicans used to their advantage in reaching out to suburban parents.

The latest turnaround, he said, "shows opportunity" for Democrats, although Paleologos predicted it will be a "tough slog" to reach the polling numbers they need to maintain control of the House and Senate.

Veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz said the current dynamics clearly favor Republicans. Biden's approval rating, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, stands at 42%, only a slight bump from 41% in November.

"It's hard to run against history. But it's equally hard when every day brings about new economic numbers, COVID numbers and immigration numbers," Luntz said.

Democracy bigger than politics, some say

Luntz, who worked for Speaker Newt Gingrich during Republicans' historic House takeover in 1994, said the parallels between today and 1994, President Bill Clinton's first midterm, are "frighteningly similar." But he said Republicans should not be "measuring the drapes" yet, adding that the10 months before November is "a lifetime" in politics.

"The Democrats have not lived up to expectations, but the Republicans have to prove that they can do a better job. That's what 2022 is about," Luntz said.

Scot Van Handel, 50, a construction business owner in Hortonville, Wisconsin, and a political independent, said he believes the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol "went a little bit too far." But he said he's not worried about something similar happening again.

"I don’t believe there's a threat to our actual democracy," he said, adding that he's hoping the House swings back to Republicans in the fall.

Even if fighting for voting rights and democracy isn't the recipe for Democratic success in November, some say the goal is much bigger than electoral politics.

"It's true that the median voter does not think about, and extremely rarely votes based on, democratic erosion," Jonathan Ladd, an associate professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy and the Department of Government, wrote in a recent Twitter post.

But there's still reason to "sound the alarm," Ladd said. "Democracy survives because the political class supports it and shuns those who don't."

Contributing: Sarah Elbeshbishi. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden, Dems head into midterms with anti-Trump message, better polls