The 2018 Midterms: Painting the House Four Weeks Out

Last week I broke down the nine races that will determine who controls the Senate. I again called it for the Republican Party. (Afterward, Real Clear Politics — which moved North Dakota from toss-up to lean GOP — and FiveThirtyEight — which increased Republican chances to keep the Senate from 68 to 78 percent — each followed my lead. No big deal.) But who’s on track to win the other half of Congress? With just four weeks until the 2018 Midterms, let’s find out.

The House of Representatives

Current composition:

360px-US_House_193-236_(6V).svg

  • Republicans: 235
  • Democrats: 193
  • Vacant: 7
  • 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: 17

You might recall that last month I ranked five factors to consider when making predictions about the House’s fate this November. They were:

5. The 2017-2018 Special Election cycle, which I found mostly irrelevant;
4. The Mueller investigation, which I found only slightly less irrelevant;
3. The generic ballot, which, just four weeks from the election, is on the verge of relevance;
2. President Trump’s approval rating, which is considerably relevant; and
1. Swing districts, ranked #1 for a reason.

I won’t spend any of your precious time re-explaining why I’m dismissive of 5 and 4, so feel free to read last month’s piece if you missed it. Let’s instead examine the top three.

3. What’s the latest with the generic ballot?

(For an explanation of my relative disinterest in the generic ballot, click on any earlier House breakdown.) One month ago, I noted the Democrats’ lead on Real Clear Politics’s generic ballot was about 9. Since then, their lead has dwindled:

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Down just 6.6, that’s progress for the Republican Party. Of course, even if it maintains this considerable momentum to gain another two-and-a-half points in the next month, the GOP would still trail by 4 on election day. Still, polling can be much more unstable in the final stretch, so any kind of late-minute momentum can be magnified. Moreover, we mustn’t forget that some estimates think that, due to factors like gerrymandered districts and the enhanced voting power of the rural voter, the Democrats need to actually win the national vote by double-digits to re-take the House majority. If that’s the case, then the GOP being within 5 points on election day is a scary prospect for the Dems.

To what do we owe this surge? Most pundits point to Brett Kavanaugh, after weeks of miring in multiple sexual assault allegations, consolidating and enthusing the Republican vote. With that particular fire still smoldering, media outlets have saturated the airwaves and internet with a connection between his narrative and a closing enthusiasm gap between the parties. It is PPFA’s opinion that this leveling was inevitable. The party’s popular President was going to find a way to rally his tribe in a surely wild closing month of this election cycle. If it wasn’t Kavanaugh, it was going to be something else. (Want PPFA Kavanaugh commentary? I thought so. Click here: [1])

Regardless of the cause, it’s happening, and Democrats should worry.

#2. As for the President’s approval rating…

Not coincidentally, the President’s job approval numbers mirror that of his increasingly galvanized party:

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Thirteen points under water four weeks ago, President Trump’s disapproval has dropped a point while his approval has risen three. It’s now just a single-digit deficit.

To be fair, it’s worth noting that this bump in his approval average is in large part thanks to one poll done by historically Republican-leaning Rasmussen, which has him three points above water when no other poll has him fewer than seven points below:

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Nevertheless, two quick contextual points: first, the fact remains that the most recent four polls for the President are better than the earlier five. Second, though Rasmussen might indeed be a biased outlier, it might nevertheless be the most accurate one. Yes, it’s right-leaning with many of its polls, but its industry-leading prediction gave it a banner day in the 2016 presidential election.

Still, despite the President’s improving numbers, it seems unlikely he can make the kind of headway historically needed to not hurt his party in midterm elections. According to Gallup, the number of House seats lost by the party of presidents under 50 percent approval averages about 36. Each time presidential approval is below 49 percent at a midterm — there are six such instances — the president’s party has never done better than a 28-seat loss. The Democrats, remember, need only add 25 seats to take the House.

So, can the President get to 49 percent by election day? If you ask Rasmussen, he’s already there. If, however, we put more faith into the amalgam of major polls, we see the pattern of Trump’s approval rating suggests not. For a variety of reasons — most prominently that people made up their minds on him a long time ago and few are willing to be affected by information that might change that opinion — he continues to have an incredibly stable approval rating. As charted by FiveThirtyEight, no modern approval rating ever had less polling volatility in the first 500 days of his administration:

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And according to RCP, over the last six months his approval has barely budged:

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In this half-year stretch — a political eternity, especially these days — his average approval rating never dipped too far below 41 or rose too far above 45, while his disapproval stayed between 51 and 55. As it has been for his entire administration, the President’s approval rating is like a bowling ball bouncing between bumpers. Republicans think he just keeps rolling strikes, but Democrats just hope to one day pull the presidency out of the gutter.

Based on this pattern, though his current uptick will likely rise above 45 as the election gives him a chance to rally the party and shore up center-right support, approaching 49 feels pretty unlikely. History says the Democrats should therefore gain 30 seats or more. This particular weather vane still points left.

Which only leaves the big one…

1. Swing districts.

In my Two Months Out post on the House, I charted the evolution of the Cook Report‘s breakdown of each party’s solid, likely, leaner, and toss-up seats. I think doing that again is a good place to start:

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Please excuse how small this font is getting as I add columns!

In that post, I noted that “the Democratic momentum slowed, [but] it continues.” The question we should ask ourselves is if the momentum has since stopped altogether. Examining the Difference from Two Months Out to today, it doesn’t look like it has. Though the recent national polling shifts might make Cook’s categorizations archaic by week’s end, we can say the Democratic momentum at the district level continued into October. They’ve added two more safe/likely seats, while the GOP has lost four more.

Put another way, let’s frame this as a race to 218 seats. We’ll leave the leaners and toss-ups in play, which means 68 seats can still go in either direction. If we start the Democrats with their 195 safe/likely seats, that means they need to only win 23 of the remaining 68, or just 34 percent. The Republicans start with only 172 and therefore need 46 of the remaining seats, or 66 percent.

For the mathematically challenged, those were a lot of numbers to organize in your overwhelmed brain. To the rescue is the failing New York Times, which organized these numbers into a color-coded bar:

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That black 218 bar is this race’s finish line, and the Democratic safe, likely, and lean zones are closer to it than their Republican counterparts are. That’s a good sign for the blue team.

As always, however, there’s a flip side. The Republican “leaners” are a huge cohort. That’s 25 seats still leaning Republican, and I believe the fallout of the Kavanaugh confirmation will embolden most of the leaners into voting red. If Republicans hold all 25, they’d jump to 197 before the toss-ups, and we’re talking a neck-and-neck stretch run in the race to 218.


Final verdict: It’s a mixed bag. Though these factors speak in unison — the Democrats are still the favorite by the numbers — not since January has the “blue wave” looked this likely to dissipate. If the district breakdown catches up to the Republican momentum on the generic ballot and presidential approval — a not improbable development — the prediction could easily swing to the Republicans in the next few weeks. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we cannot underestimate the ability of Donald Trump to win elections.



FOOTNOTE:

[1]These days, the two most common questions I’m asked by family, friends, and co-workers are A) Has any Supreme Court Justice been impeached before? and B) What do I think of the whole Kavanaugh situation? I looked into A and decided it wouldn’t make for a very interesting post. The answer, though, is there’s been one successful impeachment by the House — over 200 years ago — and, thanks to the Senate’s acquittal in that one instance, zero removals from the bench.

B, of course, is less straight forward. I’ve chosen not to write about it because, as longtime readers have noticed, my greatest passions are history and the political horse race. The Kavanuagh confirmation process, though considerably political, has not at all been like a horse race. It’s more like that moment where the horse breaks his leg during the race and gets euthanized right there on the track in front of all the spectators.

Do I have an opinion? Of course! But long time readers also know I prefer providing context over sharing opinions that change precisely zero minds. So here’s my best attempt to show each camp what the other side is thinking. Remember, they think you’re the problem, that you’ve lost your mind over this whole thing, and that you’re ruining America.

Republicans, as usual, think Democrats have no regard for the Constitution. The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee patiently listened to Dr. Ford and considered the new FBI investigation coupled with the earlier half-dozen FBI background checks, all of which determined there was no hard evidence incriminating Kavanaugh. No sufficient corroboration existed supporting Ford or the other two sexual assault allegations. Not wanting to let the mere charge of sexual assault to be enough to ruin anyone’s career or life, they sided with the judge. Meanwhile, Democrats, who have grown hysterical from their own political inadequacies, tried to weaponize the #MeToo movement in a desperate obstructionist attempt to block conservatives from taking control of the Supreme Court. In contrast, Republicans built a more logical argument around the cherished Western ideal of “innocent until proven guilty”; they determined that Kavanaugh’s confirmation could and should proceed, and all attempts to sully his name were unfair character assassinations typical of the Democratic Party.

Democrats, on the other hand, don’t see this as an instance where the “innocent until proven guilty” threshold applies. He wasn’t on trial or at risk of going to jail. Democrats instead saw the confirmation as a job interview. If an employer learned that a potential applicant had three sexual assault allegations to his name and lots of second-hand corroboration suggesting he’s covering up a sordid past, most employers, one would think, would consider other options. Yet, for this powerful, life-long position in the federal government, Democrats and other liberal groups became frustrated with the dismissive Republican hand-waving of women’s concerns, like when the President called the whole thing a “hoax,” which feels like a direct insult to the countless women who have endured sexual trauma and the fear of it. The limited FBI investigation, termed a joke by a classmate who had come forward with information but was ignored, allowed the GOP not only to proceed with Kavanaugh’s nomination, but rally to his cause. Any complaints about obstructionism and/or disregarding the Constitution was met with a rebuttal about President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee not even getting consideration for the final year of his presidency. Then, to seal the deal with Republican voters, the President, who himself was caught on a recording bragging about sexual assault, mocked Dr. Ford in attempt to sully her name with unfair character assassinations typical of the Republican President.

Ultimately, looking at the same case yielded two very different points of view. Thus, the Kavanaugh spectacle epitomized modern politics. We see every political development through a prism that was created well before the events took place. Further apart we grow, day after day.

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