In my column last week, I noted that current public opinion data and recent election results point to a likely Democratic takeover of the House in the fall.
Some argue President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is already baked into the election cake, leaving Republicans little room to maneuver. But if you are a GOP strategist or ally of the president, you still need to formulate a plan to improve your party’s prospects and even look toward 2020.
Is there anything Republicans can do to change the trajectory of the election cycle? And if there isn’t, would a disaster for congressional Republicans in November automatically be a political disaster for Trump?
One veteran GOP campaign operative who is sympathetic to the president acknowledged something that should trouble Republicans on Capitol Hill: “Trump just endorsing a nominee is not enough. He can’t bring people out without issues.”
That conclusion seems reasonable given the Democrats’ advantage on enthusiasm and after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania to rally support for Republican nominee Rick Saccone, but the president couldn’t move the needle enough even in a district he had carried by 20 points in 2016.
He’s not alone. Previous presidents with strong personal followings also found their popularity didn’t transfer to their party when they were not on the ballot.
Firing up the base
Republican strategists across the ideological spectrum agree there isn’t much they can do about the Democrats’ sky-high energy levels. But conservatives who have rallied behind the president are still looking for ways to boost enthusiasm among Trump voters that would minimize the damage in the fall and keep the House in GOP control.
Some Republican strategists argue the GOP’s best chance to improve the landscape this year is to push a legislative agenda that is both generally conservative and broadly popular. They hope a Trump-like agenda will energize those in their party’s base who don’t identify with the GOP in Congress and were drawn to Trump’s message, combativeness and maverick style.
Conservative strategists cite a handful of possible issues: (1) “phase two” of tax reform, (2) workfare for those on public assistance, (3) infrastructure, (4) paid parental leave, (5) health care, and even (6) term limits for Congress.
Workfare/welfare reform and term limits, in particular, have populist appeal for working-class Americans who continue to see Trump as a disruptive force and Washington as a swamp that needs draining. But would Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, really adopt term limits? And would further tax cuts have any chance of being enacted after a massive spending bill?
“I don’t have any expectations that these initiatives would pass this year, but it is important for us to raise the issues and try to force a vote on them,” said one strategist who thinks pushing some of those items can improve the president’s job approval numbers.
Another GOP campaign consultant agreed with the overall approach: “Continue to push policy and legislation, and force Democrats to kill them. We need to run against the Democrats for stopping the Trump agenda.”
These conservatives are pessimistic about the midterms, however, because they complain their party’s congressional leadership isn’t committed to doing much this year. And without a pro-Trump legislative agenda (or a new version of the Contract With America), they argue, Republican turnout will be disappointing.
There is one kicker that might change the trajectory of the election enough to help the GOP — a Supreme Court retirement or vacancy that would need to be filled after the elections. While a confirmation fight would involve only the White House and the Senate, it isn’t difficult to imagine Trump and Republican operatives using the development to crank up the GOP base and Trump enthusiasts everywhere.
Finally, Republican strategists from both the populist and establishment wings of the party agree that losing the House in November would not necessarily be a terrible thing for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.
While control of that chamber would give Democrats a platform from which to investigate the president, his family and the entire administration, it would also give Trump something he desperately needs: a very visible enemy.
Trump supporters see House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as an ideal adversary — a far-left, San Francisco elitist with poll numbers as bad as or worse than the president’s.
“The president would be best off with a Republican House and Senate that would help him get stuff done over the next two years. But if he doesn’t have that, then having an enemy going into 2020 would be good,” a Republican said.
Another summarized it this way: “Lose the House. Get a boogeyman. Run against [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi for two years.”
But things aren’t quite that clear.
Multiple Hill investigations would keep the White House tied in knots, which would likely frustrate Trump and cause him to say even more outrageous things than he has so far. And Pelosi could choose to retire, depriving the president of the adversary he desires. Moreover, nobody knows where the economy will be in 2020, or how the Mueller investigation or the Stormy Daniels case will develop.
Opinion about Trump is so polarized that it is difficult to see how the midterms won’t be about him. Republicans can’t do much about Democratic enthusiasm, but they may be able to have some impact on GOP turnout. If so, they could hold on to a few seats that now appear poised to flip.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 28, 2018.
Seven and a half months before the midterm elections, the combination of attitudinal and behavioral evidence leads to a single conclusion: The Democrats are very likely to win control of the House in November.
Just as important, Republican and Democratic campaign strategists also agree that an electoral wave has already formed. The attitudinal evidence begins with national polling.
President Donald Trump’s job approval rating has settled into a relatively narrow range, with between 39 percent and 42 percent of registered voters approving of his performance. Only 33 percent to 37 percent of respondents say that the country is headed in the right direction, another bit of evidence that reflects the extent of support for Trump and the Republican Party.
The current congressional generic ballot question suggests that Democrats have an 8- or 9-point advantage, a significant margin even if it is at least a couple of points below what Democrats would ideally want going into the midterms.
Taken together, these numbers paint a dangerous picture for the president and his party.
Numbers don’t lie
Trump drew about 46 percent of the vote in 2016, so the current numbers suggest a modest, but significant, erosion in support.
Exactly where the slippage has taken place isn’t clear, though it is certainly less severe in rural America and more significant in the suburbs.
That means some states, and some congressional districts, have been affected more than others.
The new March 10-14 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of adults is consistent with other surveys over the past six months. It shows Democrats with a large generic ballot advantage among younger voters, women, whites with at least a college degree and voters age 65 and older.
The GOP’s great strength in the generic ballot is among two pro-Trump groups, men and whites without a college degree. Unfortunately for the party, the survey also shows Democrats, whites with a college degree and older voters as having the greatest interest in the election (and therefore the greatest likelihood of voting). Each of those groups prefers a Democratic Congress.
Moreover, while independents don’t traditionally turn out in big numbers in midterms, one veteran Republican strategist sees them as a huge problem this year. “They are tired of the drama,” he said.
The worst case for the GOP, of course, would be mediocre Republican turnout combined with strong Democratic participation and independents behaving like Democrats (which is what they did in 2006).
If that happens, Republicans would take quite a beating in the fall.
The behavioral part of the equation is just as troubling for Republicans, since it confirms the survey data.
Election results in the Virginia governor’s race last year, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District last week, and other state legislative special elections around the country have shown Democratic energy and turnout, particularly in suburban areas.
Hillary Clinton won Virginia by 5 points in 2016, but Democrat Ralph Northam took the gubernatorial contest last fall by almost 9 points.
Trump carried Pennsylvania’s 18 District by 20 points, but GOP nominee Rick Saccone ran about even with his Democratic opponent last week.
And in a Wisconsin state Senate special election in January, a district Trump carried by 17 points went Democratic by about 10 points.
Of course, not every state legislative contest produced that strong a gain for Democrats, and Republicans held all their open House seats in special elections last year.
But the recent trend is clear — Republicans are swimming against a strong current.
“It’s baked in now,” one veteran Republican campaign veteran told me, noting the GOP’s problems with women and college-educated voters. “We knew single women hated [the Republican Party]. We couldn’t do anything about that. But married women were different. We figured out how to deal with them by talking about pocketbook issues. But now college-educated women hate us. Even with the current economy. It’s the bullying, the nastiness, the tweeting. It’s all about Trump’s behavior.”
Republican insiders also worry that a chunk of “Trump voters” won’t turn out in November even though they still like the president personally. “There are blue-collar Democrats who voted for Trump but don’t care about the Republican Party. They are unlikely to turn out for a Republican candidate in the fall, though they could still help Trump in 2020,” one GOP consultant said.
The problem for Republican congressional candidates this year is that there are plenty of clouds hanging over the president and the country despite the strong economic numbers and business optimism.
North Korea and the Russia investigation are only the most obvious ones, but the president’s inclination to attack (or counterattack) and disrupt makes it more likely that controversies and chaos will continue.
Indeed, the campaign season is likely to lead to more Trump political rallies, where his freewheeling style and off-the-cuff comments can create more controversies.
So, what is the current trajectory of the 2018 midterms? I interviewed a wide range of campaign professionals, including some sympathetic to the president. All insisted on anonymity, and almost all believe the House will flip.
The veterans generally expect GOP losses in the 30- to 45-seat range, far more than the two-dozen seats House Democrats need for majority control.
The retirement of longtime Republican incumbents from competitive districts is adding to the problem, as is candidate fundraising. While there is plenty of GOP super PAC money available, Democratic House candidates are outraising their Republican counterparts.
Given that, national conservative and Republican groups will need to make tough decisions about who to fund and who to cut off as the election cycle progresses.
Obviously, events between now and November could change things (something I intend to address in my next column). But that’s the point. The burden is on Republicans — and the president — to change the cycle’s current trajectory. If they don’t, the House will flip.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 20, 2018.
The results in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District confirm problems for Republicans.
The size of the Democratic general election wave is still unclear, but something is happening. Districts won comfortably by President Donald Trump in 2016 are more competitive now, which suggests that districts won by Hillary Clinton are likely to go Democratic in the midterms.
Democrat Conor Lamb either narrowly lost a congressional district that went for Trump by 20 points, or he won it. Either way, that’s bad news for the GOP.
If GOP state Rep. Rick Saccone ends up winning, Republicans may heave a sigh of relief that they didn’t lose a seat. But that is not the story.
The real story is Saccone badly underperforming Trump.
Clearly, either some Trump voters didn’t turn out, or other Trump voters defected to Lamb. Or both things happened.
No matter what, the result is a problem for Republicans in western Pennsylvania but also in other suburban areas.
Of course, there are always reasons to be cautious about reading too much into the results of a special election, especially when we don’t have exit polling to help us understand who voted and how demographic groups behaved.
Lamb, 33, was widely regarded as the better candidate — more articulate, more attractive and more energetic. The Marine veteran served as an assistant U.S. attorney and ran as a moderate by applauding Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, opposing new laws restricting gun ownership and announcing that he would not vote for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker.
But Saccone, 60, benefited from the district’s fundamentals, since Trump carried it by a convincing 20 points in 2016.
The district is over 93 percent white, and 65 percent of residents have less than a four-year college degree.
Saccone is an Air Force veteran who is serving his fourth term in the Pennsylvania House. “I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” the Republican said of his support for the president.
Saccone and his GOP allies argued that Lamb would support the Democratic agenda and oppose Trump’s initiatives if elected to Congress.
The president went to the district to endorse Saccone and energize Republicans — and Trump voters — to turn out Tuesday. Special elections, after all, are often about turnout.
The Pennsylvania results show that Trump did not turn out enough of his voters to elect Saccone. He may have brought some Saccone voters to the polls, but he didn’t do what Republicans will need for the midterms.
The results in Pennsylvania’s 18th — not who won but how the district performed in the special election — is likely to concern Republican officeholders and strategists.
Finally, the election demonstrated once again that it is unwise to over-value second-tier polls in state and local races.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 14, 2018.
If elections and national surveys over the past year have shown us anything, it is that suburban voters could well be the key to the 2018 midterm House elections.
Turnout among minority voters and younger voters could affect the result in a district here or there, but an increase in suburban turnout or a substantial shift by suburban voters (especially suburban women) from the Republicans to the Democrats could have a much broader impact on the fight for control of the House.
In Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam ran ahead of 2013 Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe by 11 points in Fairfax County and 10 points in Loudoun County, two large suburban areas outside Washington, D.C. He also did 9 points better than McAuliffe in two Richmond-area suburban counties, Henrico and Chesterfield.
Northam even drew a larger percentage in those four suburban counties than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The same trend held in the Alabama Senate special election in December, won in an upset by Democrat Doug Jones.
While Republican Roy Moore ran up large margins in rural areas, Jones won five of the state’s six largest counties. (Of course, Jones’s strong showing in those urban and suburban areas was undoubtedly due to the unique set of liabilities carried by his GOP opponent rather than President Donald Trump’s weaknesses.)
According to the 2016 exit poll, Trump carried rural areas comfortably, 61 percent to 34 percent, and most of those voters remain loyal to him. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since rural voters tend to be whiter and more traditional in their outlook than voters in urban America. (For a different view of defections from the Trump coalition, see Ron Brownstein’s Jan. 11 piece “The Voters Abandoning Donald Trump” in The Atlantic.)
Given that, House Republicans campaigning in heavily rural districts are less likely to suffer because of Trump’s standing. That should be good news for GOP lawmakers like Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin, whose district is 72 percent rural, and Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, whose at-large district is 77 percent rural.
Non-rural voters are a different story.
Clinton carried urban voters by 26 points (60 percent to 34 percent), but Trump’s narrow 49 percent to 45 percent margin in the suburbs, which accounted for almost half of all voters, allowed him to win an Electoral College majority even while he was losing the popular vote by more than 2 points.
Indeed, Trump’s winning margins over Clinton among suburban voters in Michigan (53 percent to 42 percent), Pennsylvania (52 percent to 44 percent), Wisconsin (55 percent to 39 percent) and Florida (53 percent to 43 percent) produced that victory.
If there is a partisan shift in the suburbs in November, a couple of dozen House Republican seats should be among the first to feel the movement.
In New Jersey, Rep. Leonard Lance’s district is 92 percent suburban, while the districts of retiring Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen and Frank A. LoBiondo are 90 percent and 72 percent suburban respectively. Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock’s district is 83 percent suburban. (All district breakdowns by suburban, urban and rural areas come from “The Almanac of American Politics, 2016.”)
In California, the districts of Reps. Steve Knight and Duncan Hunter are each 90 percent suburban, while retiring Rep. Darrell Issa’s open seat is 69 percent suburban.
Retiring Rep. Ed Royce’s district is evenly split between suburban and urban areas. In Michigan, departing Rep. Dave Trott’s seat is 99 percent suburban, while Rep. Mike Bishop’s is almost 78 percent suburban. Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis’s district is 83 percent suburban, and Rep. Erik Paulsen’s is 66 percent suburban. Illinois Rep. Mike Bost’s district is 65 percent suburban.
Of course, all suburbs are not alike.
In some places, closer-in suburbs tend to be older and more moderate, while suburban areas farther out tend to be newer and more conservative.
Strongly conservative suburbs are less likely to be strongly anti-Trump, but even in those areas a shift to the Democrats could have a significant impact.
Not every Republican in a district that is at least 50 percent or 60 percent suburban is likely to lose, but many of them probably will if we have anything approaching a “normal” midterm election with an unpopular incumbent in the White House.
Looking for other names to watch? Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman’s district is 49 percent suburban and 1 percent rural. Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam’s district is 77 percent suburban and 0 percent rural. Texas Rep. Pete Sessions sits in a district that is 47 percent suburban and 0 percent rural. Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder’s district is 79 percent suburban.
There are other GOP seats that are majority suburban — including Georgia’s 6th (Karen Handel), New York’s 24th (John Katko), Virginia’s 7th (David Brat) and Ohio’s open 12th (Pat Tiberi) — and I have not listed any Pennsylvania districts, which have only recently been redrawn.
But clearly, at least four GOP-held seats in southeast Pennsylvania — Rep. Ryan A. Costello’s, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s and those of retiring Reps. Pat Meehan and Charlie Dent — are at risk.
Finally, a handful of Republican-held seats in heavily urban districts that also have some suburban areas — Nebraska’s 2nd (Don Bacon), Florida’s 26th (Carlos Curbelo), Kentucky’s 6th (Andy Barr), North Carolina’s 9th (Robert Pittenger), California’s 44th (Mimi Walters) and Texas’ 7th (John Culberson) — could also be affected by movement in the suburbs, especially if combined with turnout and vote choice shifts in urban areas.
With Republican retirements and a new Pennsylvania map giving Democrats better House opportunities, the GOP needs to hold on to suburban voters who supported Trump in 2016. That won’t be easy, especially considering the president’s problems with more highly educated voters and suburban women.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 28, 2018.
It is no secret that the Republican strategy to keep the House in 2018 includes running against Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC have run television ads during special elections this cycle linking Democratic nominees to Pelosi, and GOP strategists are gleeful when they talk about the Democratic leader’s baggage and their intention to use her in their TV ads.
The strategy is a reasonable one. After all, when a president is as unpopular as Donald Trump, the best strategy for the president’s party is to try to make the election a referendum on someone or something else. Moreover, it’s usually easier to motivate voters to turn out against a villain than it is to generate enthusiasm about your own incumbent’s accomplishments and promises.
Pelosi isn’t the first House speaker to become the target of the political opposition.
In 1980, congressional Republicans ran a now-famous television ad that argued “the Democrats are out of gas. Vote Republican for a change.” The spot featured an actor who looked like House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Less than two decades later, Democrats were running against Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Pelosi’s poll numbers are mediocre at best, with anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of voters saying that they have a favorable view of her. In contrast, about half of respondents have an unfavorable view.
For some, Pelosi is a “San Francisco liberal” who represents everything wrong with the left, from culture and values to taxes and government spending.
But Pelosi’s ideology and longevity are not the only reasons her poll numbers are bad. In an article last June, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted that the poll numbers of other legislative leaders, including John A. Boehner, Paul D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell, were also terrible. He explained that their ratings tanked when they moved into the congressional leadership.
Will it work?
Still, it is far from clear that running against Pelosi this year will be effective among voters who matter, no matter how bad her numbers are and no matter what a handful of special elections showed in 2017.
Pelosi is the House minority leader at a time when Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. She is a public figure, certainly, but her role is not particularly high profile now, and she has little power on Capitol Hill. Trump, in contrast, dominates the political stage and occupies the most powerful position in the government. Given that, it will be challenging for Republican nominees around the country to make the midterm elections “about” Pelosi.
Trump’s ratings generally are no better than Pelosi’s. In the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 36 percent of respondents said they had positive feelings for Trump, while 56 percent had negative feelings. (Obama’s ratings were 57 percent positive and 29 percent negative.)
Moreover, it’s surely the case that the voters with the strongest dislike for Pelosi are conservative Republicans, who have disagreed with her on politics and policy for decades and who are among the president’s strongest supporters. They are likely to turn out and vote Republican whether or not Republican campaigns feature Pelosi in TV spots.
Weaker partisans, swing voters and less ideological voters are less likely to be strongly anti-Pelosi, and it is difficult to believe that they will see the midterm election as a choice between Trump and Pelosi rather than as a referendum on the president and his party.
Who’s being judged?
History, after all, strongly suggests that midterms tend to be referenda on the man in the White House, not on House minority leaders.
In the last 80 years, the president’s party has gained seats twice in midterms — once after the Sept. 11 attacks and once in 1998, when Republican legislators invited a backlash by ignoring public opinion and doggedly pursuing Bill Clinton’s impeachment even though most voters had a very favorable view of the president’s job performance and opposed impeachment.
Instead of gaining a handful of House seats, as was expected, the GOP lost a handful of seats during Clinton’s second midterm, when the president was on the defensive because of the Lewinsky scandal. Republicans unwisely made the midterms about impeachment.
Republicans’ best chance for maintaining control of the House this November rests on a combination of events and circumstances, including nasty Democratic primaries that produce weaker nominees, Republican candidates’ efforts to localize their races, and developments that energize the GOP or depress Democratic turnout.
Running against Pelosi could fit into that equation, but it is difficult to imagine that it would move the needle significantly.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 21, 2018.
I hear it all the time these days. The Democratic electoral wave is petering out. The generic ballot shows the Democrats’ advantage is cratering. President Donald Trump’s job approval ratings are up. Voters are giving the president more and more credit for the economy’s strength. Lighten up, political junkies, the election is not until November. Today’s generic may not be tomorrow’s.
Moreover, the Democrats remain well-positioned to benefit from an electoral wave. This column focuses on the generic ballot, as reported and averaged by RealClearPolitics.
Although various surveys report different results, the generic ballot probably now sits in the mid-single digits, in the 5- to 8-point range.
There was a point in mid-December when a series of polls showed Democrats with a big advantage in the generic ballot.
Consecutive polls released by Quinnipiac (+15 points, +12 points), CNN (+18 points), NBC News/Wall Street Journal (+11 points), PPP (+11 points) and Marist (+13 points) showed Democrats with a double-digit lead on the question.
For those using those polls as a starting point, the generic has tightened.
But the evidence is more complicated, and the warnings of the Democrats’ weakening position overblown.
There were 15 polls conducted between early December and early February that showed a double-digit advantage for Democrats — almost half of them, seven, came from Quinnipiac.
Quinnipiac’s generic advantage numbers have been relatively consistent (and within the margin of error) over the last two months.
Just as important, they have almost always showed a much larger Democratic advantage than other nonpartisan surveys:
- Nov. 29-Dec. 4, Democrats +14
- Dec. 6-11, Democrats +12
- Dec. 12-18, Democrats +15
- Jan. 5-9, Democrats +17
- Jan. 12-16, Democrats +11
- Jan. 19-23, Democrats +13
- Feb. 2-5, Democrats +9
The February number was certainly down a few points, especially from early January. But given margins of error and the impact of news and short-term events on the public, the general direction of Quinnipiac’s polling is clear and consistent.
According to Quinnipiac, Democrats have had and continue to have a considerable advantage in the generic ballot (if the numbers accurately reflect the sentiments of registered voters, of course).
Let’s compare the Quinnipiac numbers to those from Monmouth University.
Monmouth released two surveys between early December and early February. The December survey (Dec. 10-12) found Democrats with a 15-point advantage in the generic ballot, while the late January survey (Jan. 28-30) showed the party holding a mere 2-point edge.
You can conclude either that the Democrats’ generic advantage has collapsed or, alternatively, that one or both of the numbers did not accurately reflect where registered voters stood at that time.
For me, the choice isn’t close. I’ll select the second alternative. Public opinion rarely moves so dramatically in seven weeks.
Let’s look at the generic ballot questions in the Economist/YouGov online surveys from late November to early February. Five additional surveys during that same period showed the same trend. (The Economist Group is the parent company of Roll Call.)
- Nov. 26-28, Democrats +6
- Dec. 10-12, Democrats +8
- Dec. 17-19, Democrats +9
- Jan. 8-9, Democrats +7
- Jan. 14-16, Democrats +6
- Jan. 28-30, Democrats +5
- Feb. 4-6, Democrats +6
No wild swings. No dramatic movement. Just a consistent mid- to high-single-digit advantage.
The narrow range doesn’t prove that the numbers are correct, but at the very least they raise questions about the “sky is falling” assessment.
Let’s compare the Economist/YouGov surveys to CNN’s, which asked the generic three times between October and January, a slightly earlier period than the other polls I’ve been discussing.
An Oct. 12-15 CNN poll found the Democrats with a 16-point advantage in the generic (54 percent to 38 percent).
In mid-December, the Democrats’ advantage grew to 18 points (56 percent to 38 percent).
And in the most recent poll (Jan. 14-18), the Democratic advantage plunged to 5 points (49 percent to 44 percent).
Again, you can believe the Democrats’ position in the generic has absolutely cratered, or you can be skeptical — as I am — that the mid- to high-teens advantages accurately portrayed where the cycle was.
Finally, let me turn to my favorite survey over the years, the one from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.
An Oct. 23-26 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had the Democrats with a 7-point generic ballot advantage.
In mid-December, that advantage spiked to 11 points. And in mid-January, it was back down to a modest 6 points.
Do those three surveys show movement, or, given that they all were well within the margin of error, is the difference just noise? I don’t think we can know for sure without looking at them in the larger context.
The sky is not falling
After examining all of the data on RealClearPolitics, including individual surveys from various organizations, I’m inclined to conclude that the Democrats’ advantage in the generic has generally been in the middle to upper single digits except, possibly, for a short-lived spike in mid-December.
I would not be surprised if we see another spike or two (in one direction or the other), but count me as skeptical that the sky is falling for Democrats.
The warnings that Democrats can’t take a wave for granted and don’t have the House locked up in November strike me as wise. It is still early.
But waves usually don’t develop until the midterm year, so the fact that the Democratic advantage isn’t in the double digits now is not especially important.
During 2005, the year before the Democratic midterm wave, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot favored the Democrats by anywhere from 5 to 11 points.
In January 2006, the survey showed Democrats with a 9-point advantage.
In March, the party’s advantage grew to 13 points, but one month later, it fell to a mere 6 points (45 percent to 39 percent).
I expect that at that point some Democrats and many journalists were issuing dire warnings about the party’s prospects.
As we know, the Democratic generic ballot advantage in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll jumped back up to double digits in June 2006, and the Democrats eventually won the House in November, with the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot showing a lead in the mid-teens.
So what should you take from all of this?
The abundance of polls has not made our political crystal balls clearer. We have more data, but they often seem contradictory.
We still have to figure out which numbers are accurate and what they mean.
There are now so many polls asking the generic ballot question that even people who should know better end up making comparisons across surveys.
The most recent poll gets all of the hype, no matter whether it seems to fit comfortably with other data and real news events.
And the generic ballot is just one measure of the two parties’ strengths during the cycle, which is why any analysis should look at multiple indicators, including multiple poll questions, fundraising numbers, measures of enthusiasm, candidate recruitment and district-level survey data in competitive seats.
So watch the generic ballot, but don’t become a prisoner to it.
Democratic prospects of taking over the House are not measurably worse than they were a month or two ago. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to believe that they are better and improving.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2018.