(What’s this? A Thursday post?! You’re welcome! Today marks two months until the November 6 midterm election, so we’ll mark the occasion with my latest breakdown of the race for the House. I’ll be back with your regularly scheduled Monday programming with my latest take on the Senate. Enjoy!)
Autumn has arrived. Just two months before the 2018 midterms, it’s time to once again ask the two most important electoral questions of the season. Will the Republicans hold onto the House? Do the Democrats have any shot at the Senate? Let’s see where things stand…
The House of Representatives
- Republicans: 237
- Democrats: 193
- Vacant: 5 (up one from SMO)
- All are up for re-election
- Number of seats needed for a majority in the House: 218
- Number of seats Democrats must add for a majority: 25
- Number of seats Republicans can lose while retaining majority: 19
Five factors to consider, from least to most relevant:
5. The 2017-2018 Special Elections: Big deal. I think most voters interpret the predictive nature of special elections similarly to how their preferred media outlets do. When it comes to the meaning of recent special elections, both sides must have paid extra for spin classes. Democrats think the fact that they have come so close in districts where Republicans usually win by much more shows that a “blue wave” is coming. Republicans, on the other hand, say wins are wins and losses are losses; true enough, Republicans have had to defend nine House seats in the 2017-2018 special election cycle and have succeeded eight times — the lone exception a loss by 0.4% in the Pennsylvania 18th. That’s a great record in the midst of a supposed blue wave.
In actuality, special elections from the 2017-2018 cycle are not great samples for several reasons. For starters, they occurred too early. Elections are often snapshots of who has early November momentum, so an election in the previous summer or spring matters little. More importantly, each special election became rather nationalized, with lots of outsized coverage from the media and outside support from national partisans. Desperate Democrats channeled a lot of effort into a few of the races, yet they still came up empty all but one time in nine. On election day, their energy will be dispersed among many of the 435 different House races. When that happens, they won’t be as competitive in solid Republican districts.
4. The Mueller investigation: We don’t know if Bob Mueller will repeat James Comey’s decision to make some sort of election-influencing announcement shortly before Americans cast their ballots (that crunching sound you hear is Hillary Clinton’s grinding teeth), but if he does, I don’t see it mattering much. Republicans have bought into the campaign to discredit the once unimpeachable reputation of Mueller, so if he did find anything unbecoming, it could just be explained away as FBI bias and fake news. The President’s near record approval from his own party is evidence that this mission has been accomplished — Republicans are buying what Trump is selling. Meanwhile, if whatever Mueller unearths only singles out people at the sub-Trump level while finding no evidence the President did anything wrong, the left, which has also already made up its mind, will still deem him guilty by association, ignorance, or both. Moderate independents might be swayed by Mueller’s findings, but modern midterm history shows us that the most passionate ideologues are the ones who turn out in non-presidential years. Say what you want about Trump, but he has certainly fired up members of both parties, whether out of adulation or apoplexy. These flames don’t need Bob Mueller’s gasoline. Partisan voters will show up regardless.
3. The generic ballot: This will be my third time telling you not to buy into the hype of the generic ballot — which measures nationally which party voters plan to support this November — when we’re still far from the election. That’s not how Congressional elections work. Democrats continue to hold a sizable lead in the number (the RCP average is about 9), which left-leaning media outlets frame as proof of a blue wave, but no Congressional candidate gets elected by the nation. Though the generic ballot can be useful in the last few days of the election cycle, as such a figure can reveal who’s about to show up to the polls, what matters more is polling in individual districts (see below).
Moreover, even if Democrats win the generic ballot, that doesn’t mean they win the House. Their higher national popularity is due in part to being the much more favored party in blue districts, but those districts still send only one Democratic Congressperson each; Republicans, meanwhile, have won more districts but at smaller margins. A couple prominent estimates think that Democrats need to win much more than a small majority of the country to win the House; one thinks they need to win by at least seven points, the other by at least eleven.
2. President Trump’s approval rating: Now we’re getting into the pretty relevant factors. As I discussed in May’s “The Implications of Trump’s Rising Polls,” a presidential approval rating strongly correlates to his party’s midterm success, or lack thereof, in a midterm election:
Gallup found that the number of House seats lost by the party of presidents under 50 percent approval averaged 36. Of all instances of presidential approval being below 49 percent (there are six such instances), the president’s party has never done better than a 28-seat loss. The Democrats . . . only need to add 25 seats for a majority.
Since the President’s allies and his detractors each tend to isolate polls that better reflect their own position, it’s always safest to look at the amalgam. Real Clear Politics, which gives major polls equal weight in its average, has Trump at 41.5/54.5 approval/disapproval (-13). FiveThirtyEight, which weighs polls based on how accurate they’ve turned out to be in recent elections, has the President at 40/53.5 (-13.5). Worse yet for the President, both have him trending in the wrong direction. For example, here’s RCP’s rolling average since the start of summer:
Only eight points under water less than three months ago, President Trump has recently seen the spread climb by a significant five points. Most frightening, the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found him at 36 approval and 60 disapproval, with 53 percent — a comfortable majority — saying they strongly disapprove of his performance. People who strongly disapprove typically are the ones who vote. (By comparison, only 24 percent, according to the poll, “strongly approved.”) His supporters will say this is a result of fake news, but in politics, perception is reality. (Also, their news is probably fake, too.)
If history is any indication, the President being so far under 49 percent places his party’s majority in great peril.
1. Swing districts: This isn’t everything, but it’s close. How are the races in the competitive districts looking? To find out, I’ve returned to the industry standard: the Cook Report. I’ve checked back in on its House analysis and merged their numbers with my last two midterm posts to see how their “safe,” “likely,” “leaning,” and “toss-up” numbers have changed across 2018. Below are those findings:
Of all five factors discussed today, this one most damns the GOP’s chances. Even President Trump’s mediocre approval numbers aren’t as impactful; after all, his final RCP average before the election was 42.2 before going on to win 46.1 of the actual vote and, you know, the election. He’s at 41.5 now.
These district numbers, though, keep going from bad to worse. In January, the GOP had a 16-seat advantage in safe+likely; now it’s a 17-seat deficit. Though the Democratic momentum slowed, it continues. Meanwhile, across these first eight months of 2018, Republican-held “toss-up” seats jumped from 16 to 28, while there are only two toss-up seats held by the Democrats. If these 30 combined seats break evenly, Democrats gain 13 seats just from that group, but momentum suggests Democrats would do even better than that.
Still, though the Democratic Party certainly has the momentum, the GOP is still very much alive. As noted, the swing toward the Democrats has slowed. Even after all these developments, including all of the President’s legal and personal troubles, check out that sizable “leaner” figure toward the Republican Party. Despite everything that’s happened, those districts still haven’t deserted the GOP. At this point, what more could possibly happen in the next two months to drive them away? Let’s say Republicans stop the bleeding and these numbers hold firm. If we therefore assign the leaners to their current party, the count is Republicans 203, Democrats 202 with 30 seats up for grabs. It’s anyone’s game! Very exciting stuff.
Prediction: That final hypothetical assumed Republicans tighten the tourniquet around the President’s hemorrhaging numbers and that they stop the Democratic siphoning of Republican-held districts. These are not terribly safe assumptions. With the generic ballot favoring Democrats, President Trump falling to 40 percent approval, and district momentum still trickling toward the challengers, Presidential Politics for America, with two months to go, still gives the House of Representatives for the Democratic Party.
On Monday, we’ll re-examine the Senate. See you then.
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