by Sean Trende
Forecasting elections is a fraught endeavor, especially before autumn has arrived. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was fond of saying that a week is a long time in politics; if this is true, then five months is a veritable eternity.
Despite trying daily to take this maxim to heart, if you had asked me at the beginning of this year who would control the House of Representatives after the November elections, I would have answered “Democrats” without skipping a beat. Indeed, I had stated on multiple occasions that, unless things changed, Republicans would likely lose 40-50 House seats.
Things seem to have changed, however, and today I am much less certain about the outcome. To be clear, what follows should not be read as an obituary for the Democrats, whom I still consider the favorites to win the House. Instead, it should be taken as a warning: Republicans have jumped back into the game, and Democrats underestimate them at their own peril.
What has happened over the past few months? Perhaps the best place to begin is with the shift in the so-called “generic ballot” poll question. Pollsters ask this question in different ways, but the basic idea is the same across pollsters: It either asks which party a prospective voter plans to support in the next election, or which party that person would prefer to see control Congress. The final generic ballot polls usually come pretty close to measuring how people vote for the House.
According to the RealClearPolitics poll average, Democrats opened up a lead of about nine points over the course of the summer of 2017. It expanded to around 10 points in the fall, before exploding to 13 points around Christmas. CNN, a high-quality pollster, put the Democrats’ lead at 18 points on December 17.
But this lead was not long-lived. The Democrats’ advantage saw a steady decline beginning in January and continuing through June, when it was a mere three points. Late this week, a flurry of polls pushed the Democrats’ lead back up to seven points, although it remains to be seen whether this is just a blip.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, speaks to the media after attending the Senate Democrats policy luncheon on June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
We should keep two things in mind. First, Democrats probably need to win the popular vote by four or five points in order to take control of the House. That’s because Democrats tend to live in tightly clustered areas — think of megapolises like New York City, or a number of smaller blue “islands” across the country like Charlottesville, Va. — which tends to dilute their influence when drawing congressional districts.
Gerrymandering also plays a role here. Thus, even the most recent polls showing Democrats leading the generic ballot by seven points are consistent with a closely contested House.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, this is not the type of showing Democrats have enjoyed at this point in recent years where they posted big gains. In June 2006, for example, Democrats had a lead in the generic ballot of around 12 points, with the Associated Press placing their lead as high as 20 points. In 2008, the Democrats’ lead was a tick higher, at about 12.5 points. As bad as the environment feels for Republicans right now, the polling doesn’t look like it did in those years (yet).
Presumably, we want a fuller explanation of what has been driving these races, which would allow us to have a better sense of how things might play out in the future. A major factor is the economy. It is a bit of a cliché to say that people vote their pocketbooks, and years where the economy fared poorly, such as 1938, 1946, 1958 and 1974, have seen the President’s party endure some of the worst outcomes on record. Midterm elections that occur in a cycle featuring brisk economic growth, such as 1998 and 1978, have gone much more smoothly for the President’s party.
Economic growth has been brisk, so why are Republicans in any danger of losing the House? The answer likely lies with the President. While a recession almost always leads to, as President George W. Bush memorably put it, “a thumpin’” in the elections, a strong economy does not necessarily lead to a good outcome. Elections in 1994, 2006 and 2014 stand out for going poorly for the president’s party, notwithstanding solid growth.
Unpopular policies, scandals and wars gone badly also affect outcomes, and these show up in the President’s job-approval numbers. It isn’t surprising that the Democrats’ generic-ballot surge coincided with a collapse in President Trump’s job approval. The drop in Trump’s job approval began with the failed attempt to repeal Obamacare in March of 2017, continued through his dismissal of James Comey in May, before hitting an abysmal 37% in the RCP Average on December 13.
His numbers then rallied to as high as 44.6% at the beginning of June; it is not accidental that this coincides with the tightening of the generic ballot question. It has since retreated a bit to 42.4%, although again, this may reflect typical “noise” that we see in polls.
Speculation abounds as to why this happened, but the passage of tax cuts, the diplomacy with North Korea (which could easily go badly) and potential fatigue surrounding the Comey investigation have all been cited. Regardless, it seems good economic news is breaking through, and has helped the Republican Party as a whole.
An astute reader may observe that Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had similar job approval numbers approaching their first midterm elections, and both saw their parties lose over 50 House seats. This leads to an additional, underdiscussed factor: the relative dearth of Republicans in “naturally” vulnerable seats.
Consider this: In 1994, Democrats held 91 seats that had voted for Bill Clinton by less than his national margin — in other words, seats that should vote Republican in an evenly matched election. These seats offered up the lion’s share of Democrats’ losses. In 2010, Democrats held 69 seats that similarly leaned toward Republicans; again, this is where Republicans gained ground.
Today? Republicans hold just nine seats that lean toward Democrats. In other words, unlike 1994 and 2010, the battle for Congress today is being waged in relatively friendly territory for the President’s party, limiting their downside, relatively speaking.
There are a number of other, smaller considerations. Democratic candidates who are probably a touch too liberal for places like Nebraska’s 2nd District and Virginia’s 5th District have emerged from primaries and conventions. While these candidates aren’t goners” by any stretch, they will likely have a harder time winning in red territory than the party would have hoped.
By contrast, Democrats were relieved to avoid shutouts in the quirky California primary, where all candidates run on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party. But the results were also sort of a mixed bag for Team Blue. The Golden State is home to multiple vulnerable Republican House seats — fully one-fifth of the Republican-held seats RealClearPolitics rates as tossups — but Republicans fared well in these primaries, which tend to mirror results in the fall. The party appears to very much be in the hunt to hold many of those seats, with the possible exception of the 49th District.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks to reporters during her weekly news conference, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 7, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
We should also consider the Democrats’ performance in elections to fill vacancies in the House, including wins in dark red territory in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, and a near upset in Arizona’s 8th. These are probably the single best indicators Democrats can point to right now, and they are certainly good news for the party. Indeed, they are probably the main reason that I consider them to be the favorites, notwithstanding everything else above.
It is also, however, important to remember that special elections are … special. They foreshadowed problems for Republicans in 1974 and 2006. But Democratic performances in 2004 and Republican performances in 1998 turned out to be false positives, while Republican special election failures in 2009 and 2010 meant little for the fall.
Finally, some believe that the polls may not be adequately capturing Democratic enthusiasm. Polls are always off somewhat in November, but trying to predict the direction they will be wrong is a mug’s game. In truth, the polls have been unusually accurate this election cycle, with pollsters coming close to the mark in the aforementioned special elections, as well as in the Alabama Senate race. There is no reason to expect that they would capture those races correctly, while missing for the fall.
Could all of this shift between now and Election Day? Absolutely.
President Trump is erratic, the North Korea negotiations could blow up in his face, and his pronouncements on trade may yet throw the economy into decline. The Mueller investigation continues to hang like a Sword of Damocles over the administration; indictments of close political associates or family members could reset the narrative and put us back to where we were in the fall of 2017.
The point here is not to declare “all clear” for Republicans by any stretch. But this should serve as a reality check for those who expect Democrats to coast to House control in November.
Trende is the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics
NY Daily News · by Sean Trende