If These Poll Results Keep Up, Expect Anything on Election Night

To this point, this year’s midterm campaign has been about one big question: Can Democrats defy political gravity and overcome the long history of drubbings dealt to the president’s party?

After months showing the Democrats running very well for a midterm year, the polls now offer pretty strong evidence that the party can’t overcome political gravity — at least not entirely. Democrats are being dragged back to earth.

Now, the question is whether Democrats can survive the landing — especially in the Senate, but also in a large chunk of Democratic-leaning House districts.

Looking back, political gravity began to reassert itself several weeks ago. After Labor Day, polls suggested Republican gains in key Senate races where Democrats had shown important summer strength. President Biden’s approval rating stopped increasing. Then the favorable news environment that seemed to give Democrats an opportunity just vanished, perhaps in no small part because of bad inflation news and a falling stock market.

It’s been enough to let Republicans reclaim the lead on the generic congressional ballot, in which voters are asked whether they’ll back Democrats or Republicans for Congress. On average, Republicans have led by two to three percentage points nationally in polls of registered or likely voters released over the last week or so — with Republicans faring even better among likely voters than the polls of registered voters imply.

Of course, the voters — not the polls — will have the final say on all of these questions. As such, we spend a lot of time going through the risks of polling error in this newsletter. But for this post let’s imagine that the polls are exactly right about the national political environment. If so, the race is in a very delicate spot. Everything from a Democratic hold in the Senate and a narrow House majority to a total Republican rout becomes imaginable.

Why the wide range of possibilities? On one hand, a Republican lead of two or three points is not inconsistent with a Democratic hold of the Senate. It’s a tough environment for battleground-state Democrats, but it’s probably survivable for strong Democratic candidates against weak Republicans.

Indeed, Democrats still lead Senate races in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia, which would be enough for them to retain the chamber. It would be a mistake to view these races as anything other than tossups in this environment, though, especially with polls trending toward Republicans (with the exception of Georgia). The point is simply that it remains quite possible for Democrats to retain control.

On the other hand, a lead of two or three points would also open the door to a Republican rout. To start with the simple stuff: It would be easy for Republicans to squeak out a win in one of Pennsylvania, Arizona or Georgia, and take the Senate. But it would also be easy for the Republicans to make large gains in the House — a lot easier than people might think.

Consider, for instance, that a three-point Republican lead on the generic ballot is seven percentage points better for Republicans than Mr. Biden’s national four-point victory in 2020. If every district finished that far to the right of the presidential election result, Republicans would come away with 259 districts — an almost 50-seat gain and the largest Republican majority since the Great Depression.

Of course, many of these districts have Democratic incumbents, who ought to be stronger than the national environment suggests. As with the key Senate races, this is a survivable national environment for Democrats in such races, even if they’re vulnerable. I would not expect the Democrats to lose so many seats. But just as this is a merely survivable environment for many Democrats, it’s an environment full of opportunity for just as many Republicans.

These Republican opportunities are very real. There are alarming polls for House Democrats in places like Rhode Island’s Second District and Oregon’s Sixth. Mr. Biden won both by double digits, but now Republicans seem to be competitive or ahead. This kind of warning sign rarely happens in isolation. In fact, there’s additional evidence for Democratic softness in the polling in New York, Washington and Oregon, where Democrats usually still plainly lead but by low-double-digit or even single-digit margins that are consistent with their vulnerability in districts like the blue (but-not-quite-so-blue) Oregon 6.

In other words, this range of a two- or three-point Republican environment is potentially consistent with anything from a victory for Democrats in the Senate to something that starts to feel a lot like a Republican rout.

And that’s leaving aside the possibility that the polls typically miss by at least a modest amount. If the national environment is a few points better for Republicans than these numbers, the prospect of a Republican landslide quickly starts looking plausible. If the environment is better for Democrats, they will look surprisingly resilient for a midterm year, even if the outcome would be short of their summer hopes of defying gravity altogether.

With just two weeks to go, we’re running out of time for the polls to swing decisively either way. If so, we’re heading for a highly uncertain election night.

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