Seven Midterms Questions Seven Days Before “The Most Important Election Of Our Lifetime”

Don’t you miss the old days when column titles were more clever? Who cares, let’s go.

1. What’s the latest with some key metrics?

A. Generic ballot (according to Real Clear Politics average of polls):

October 23Democrats 48.8Republicans 41.1 (Dems +7.7)
October 30: Democrats 49.5, Republicans 41.9 (Dems +7.6)

Dare I say we’re locking into the final number? Interestingly, not only did the Democratic lead barely budge, but it did so because both parties’ numbers rose a similar amount (0.7 for the Dems, 0.8 for the GOP). Those small increases over the last week actually continue a trend twice as long:Untitled

Over the last couple weeks, each party has slowly ticked up as undecided voters gradually make up their minds. Thus far it appears they’re breaking similarly to the broader electorate.

Still, despite the Democrats’ national lead on the generic ballot, we still don’t know if that will translate to a House majority. As if their Constitutional disadvantage in the Senate and Electoral College weren’t enough, Democrats, according to the statisticians over at FiveThirtyEight, have to win a national popular vote by about 5.5 points (assuming an unsurprising distribution of votes) in order to win a majority in the House of Representatives. Other estimates vary, and I’ve seen one as high as 11 points. They might run up the score in blue districts while still losing a majority of Congressional districts overall, many of them rural or gerrymandered. Thus, this generic ballot lead, even if accurate, might not be enough.

B. Trump approval (RCP average):

October 23: Approve: 44.2; Disapprove: 52.0 (-7.8)
October 30: Approve: 44.2; Disapprove: 52.4 (-8.2)

Steady as she goes. Though there’s still a week left, Republican hopes of him getting closer to 50 — and the midterm success that usually comes with that — look unfulfillable.

C. The Cook Report‘s district breakdown: 


At the district level, the Republicans continue to lose a couple inches of ground per week, and they therefore continue to fade in the important “safe + likely” starting line in the race to 218. That might seem like their fate is sealed, but the Republican leaners are hanging in there. If we allot each party their safe, likely, and leaners, the race is Democrats 209, Republicans 197, with 29 seats in play, 28 of which elected Republicans two years ago. It’s difficult but not improbable that Republicans find 21 wins out of those 29, especially if Trump support is again underpolled — a PPFA nagging feeling.

2. Where’s the enthusiasm?

Some more political jargon for you:

A. Enthusiasm gap

For most of the year, Democrats pointed to their sizable lead in “enthusiasm” — or highly motivated voters. Such a lead — in double digits for much of the last year — is important because, in midterms, when voter turnout is low, success hinges on voter enthusiasm driving them to the ballot box. In the last month, however, that gap has closed. The most recent poll from the Economist and YouGov found that 64 percent of Democrats are more enthused to vote than in previous midterms, while the number for Republicans was at 63 percent — a negligible difference.

B. Early voting

Repeat after me: early voting is overrated, gives conflicting reports, and it can even mislead. That being said, this year’s pace looks to be record-setting. Many states and districts report unprecedented turnout. The question remains: who is that good for?

C. What voters have been “activated”?

In 2016, candidate Trump did a great job motivating his followers to get to the polls. In 2018, however, there’s a good chance President Trump has incensed so many people that might otherwise not vote into voting against him. Say what you want about President Trump, but he has certainly fired up members of both parties, whether out of adulation or apoplexy. Most notably, the millennial vote has aged into the youngest voting bloc — and a sizable one at that. Though they have a history of voting at a lower rate than all other age groups, reports indicate record interest and turnout from them.

In the end, Trump’s approach to politics may have succeeded in winning him an election, but deploying that same approach to governing may have activated new voters to cast a ballot against him. Might he be hoisted by his own petard?

3. Can voters’ priorities be predictive of the Midterm results?

Most midterm polls not only ask for voting intentions, but they also ask deeper questions to get a feel for the electorate. Among those questions is what voters’ most important issues are. Recently, Democrats have consistently promoted a certain statistic that is at once accurate and misleading. They tell us that voters’ top concern is health care, and it consistently comes up as the most common “very important issue” in national surveys. Moreover, these surveys, like the recent Economist/YouGov poll, tell us that respondents more trust the Democrats on the issue by around ten points over the Republicans.

Again, this is generally accurate. A plurality of Americans see it as their number one issue for the midterm elections, and those who do generally favor the Democratic Party next week. However, the category is not ahead by much. In a recent Ipsos poll, health care indeed won the category — but only with a fifth of those surveys. Still, even if its lead were a bit more sizable, I don’t think the category’s lead necessarily makes a blue wave likely. Health care’s strength on such a question is mostly due to Democratic respondents feeling so strongly about it, but they’d vote Democratic anyway.

Republicans, in contrast, don’t rank health care as a top concern. That same Ipsos poll found that nearly a third of Republicans rank immigration as their top issue, which more than doubled the number of Republicans who said it was health care; in fact, not only was health care a distant second place for them, it barely beat out terrorism and the economy. Meanwhile, in the Economist poll, the question of which party is more trusted on that important issue of health care was not only split along party lines (89% of Democrats trust Democrats more, 80% of Republicans trust Republicans more), but independents tied exactly — 26 percent to each side, with 48 percent having no preference. That’s not the numbers one would expect from a “winning issue.”

Ultimately, the Democratic Party ,mostly in response to its voters, chose to make health care its number one issue, so its members keep talking about it at every speech and in every interview. But if health care wasn’t their top issue, it’d have been something else. Republican voters don’t share the same concern, and Independents don’t think the Democrats are more trustworthy on the issue. Therefore, I don’t think their much-repeated stat is evidence of upcoming midterm success.

Of course, as always, all of this analysis goes in both directions. Understanding that fear is a powerful motivator, President Trump and his friends in the conservative media have effectively scared his voters into thinking “angry mobs” and the Central American “caravan” should have everyone worried about Democrats in power, but Democrats and independents don’t consume enough conservative media to fall prey to this tactic.

4. What’s the Republicans’ best case realistic scenario for this last week? 

The predictors at FiveThirtyEight have yet to catch up to PPFA on what I think is self-evident: the Republicans are more likely to win both chambers of Congress than the Democrats are. Consider the battle for the House:

  • As mentioned above, to win the House the Democrats might need to win the national House vote by 5 to 10 percent, and the generic ballot has them right in the middle of that spread.
  • Republicans have a bit more momentum over the last month (the numbers for both Trump and generic ballot Republicans have climbed), and they have more room than Democrats to grow in the final week.
  • As shown earlier, the Cook Report still has a bunch of seats “leaning” red that most prognosticators deem toss-ups (as I have done all year), but if they’re still leaning red after all this time, it would make sense that they’ll mostly vote red next week.

Meanwhile, in the Senate:

  • I see nothing that moves me off the following simplified scenario: the Democrats must win seven out the following nine states: Montana, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, North Dakota, and Texas.
  • With both pointed heavily toward Republicans, North Dakota and Texas are practically off the board at this point.
  • That means the Democrats need to sweep the other seven, with one of them being beet red Tennessee. That is extremely unlikely.

So, best case scenario for the GOP? They enjoy a strong final argument from the President, which raises the approval rating of the party and himself a difference-making few points. They’d keep the House and add a couple seats in the Senate. I would not be shocked if that’s what we wake up to Wednesday morning.

5. What’s the Democrats’ best case realistic scenario for this last week?

What would shock me is if we wake up to a total Democratic takeover of Congress. The Democrats should still be considered moderate favorites in the House, but that’s grown increasingly tenuous this month.

As for the Senate, unless Beto O’Rourke has record Democratic turnout in a Texas-wide election (which, if you listen to Those Who Know, is in play), the bellweather state for this election is Tennessee. Watch its polls. If Republicans win Texas, North Dakota, and Tennessee, it’s over. If, however, the Democrats make a late Tennessee charge under Phil Bredesen’s banner, that almost certainly means things have also taken a turn for the better in the other six states that are comparatively friendlier to Democrats. And it certainly means the House is safe.

If there’s another windmill at which Democrats can tilt, it’s that 2016 polling showed us national polling is still pretty accurate but state polling is more difficult to predict. National polls showed Hillary Clinton winning by a couple points, which she did, but every Wisconsin poll and nearly every Michigan and Pennsylvania poll, for examples, had her winning those states, which she didn’t. On the one hand, this is more evidence for underpolled Trump support; on the other hand, it’s possible the aforementioned activated voters are harder to predict, which could mean an unprecedented Democratic turnout in places like Texas and Tennessee.

Anyway, the best realistic case for the Democrats is an upset win in at least one of Tennessee, Texas, or North Dakota paired with a sweep of Montana, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, which gives them the Senate majority. But again: that would shock me. The Senate map is too difficult; the Democrats are playing too many road games. It’s more likely that a purple country turns light red than enough dark red states turn light blue.

6. Is this really a referendum on President Trump?

Midterms are often portrayed as presidential referenda, which isn’t entirely fair. Modern political history has given us a pretty consistent pattern: the party out of power — that includes its officials, voters, and media allies — is always more motivated than the party in it. It not only explains why the parties have passed back the presidency like a hot potato — even before Trump (R), Obama (D), Bush (R), Clinton (D), and Bush (R), the last time a party kept the White House for longer than three consecutive terms you’d have to go back to FDR and Truman — but midterms almost always damage the president’s party. Since that’s happened to just about every president, we can infer that it’s not so much a referendum on the president’s job performance as it is a referendum on how difficult it is to satisfactorily govern.

Nonetheless, if you listen to him, the President has gone out of his way to frame it as a referendum on him in an effort to mobilize the base. Per NBC News:

  • “A vote for Marsha is a vote for me,” Trump said on Oct. 1 in Tennessee, as he campaigned for GOP Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn.
  • “A vote for Cindy [Hyde-Smith] is a vote for me,” he said on Oct. 2 in Mississippi.
  • “A vote for Steve [Watkins] is a vote for me and our agenda to make America great again,” Trump said on Oct. 6 in Kansas.
  • “A vote for David [Young] is a vote for me to make America great again,” Trump said at his rally in Iowa last Tuesday.

So that’s apparently the way he wants it. He has tied himself to Republicans’ midterm performance. Unless they lose. Then, he says, it’s not his fault. What a great position to be in!

7. Is this really the most important election of our lifetime?

Isn’t it always?


2 thoughts on “Seven Midterms Questions Seven Days Before “The Most Important Election Of Our Lifetime””

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