Like other handicappers, I have noted that there are few signs that the national political divide, so apparent over the last three years, has started to crumble.
Trump voters are sticking with the president, while those who opposed him in 2016 generally have become even more vociferous in their opposition.
Given the closeness of the last presidential contest — and subsequent big Democratic gains in the House two years later — it’s hard to see 2020 producing a House wave for either party.
After all, only three House Republicans sit in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and most of the seats that flipped to the Democrats last year are in the suburbs, where Trump and the GOP are having serious problems.
In other words, there are few “easy” opportunities in the House for either party. But while electoral “waves” almost always refer to large changes in the House, the term can also apply to Senate and presidential outcomes where there are dramatic shifts.
In fact, the extreme partisanship we see, especially combined with the way our House districts are now drawn, limit the number of seats in the chamber that can conceivably flip, even in a partisan wave.
At some point, a competitive Senate seat becomes more likely to flip than an uncompetitive House race. We may be at that tipping point in this cycle.
How a wave begins
Electoral waves generally happen under at least one of two circumstances.
They occur when turnout in one party drops precipitously, producing an electorate that dramatically favors the other party. Or, they can occur when swing voters, who normally divide evenly between the two parties, swing dramatically to one side, thereby producing an electorate that once again disproportionately favors one party over the other.
In 2004, for example, self-identified independents in the national exit poll split evenly, 49 percent for John Kerry and 48 percent for George W. Bush.
Bush won the presidential election narrowly at the same time the GOP gained a modest three seats in the House. But two years later, in a wave election during Bush’s second midterm, the national exit poll showed self-identified independents breaking to the Democrats, 57 percent to 39 percent.
Democrats gained 31 House seats that year. Four years later, during Barack Obama’s first midterm election, which produced a GOP electoral wave, the national exit poll showed independents breaking toward Republicans, 56 percent to 39 percent.
When both partisan turnout and independent/swing voter preferences change at the same time (and in the same direction, of course), we tend to see larger electoral waves, as we did in 2010, when Republicans made large House (63 seats) and Senate (6 seats) gains.
Large gains are also possible (even likely) when the party on the defensive holds an abnormally large number of House and/or Senate seats that traditionally favor the other party.
What the polls say
While the 2020 election is still more than a year off, Republicans ought to be concerned about some early signs, both at the national and state levels.
Trump carried self-described independents in 2016, 46 percent to 42 percent, according to that year’s national exit polls, but the GOP lost them, 54 percent to 42 percent, two years later in the midterms.
Even more concerning, the Oct. 6-8 Fox News poll found the president’s approval among independents at 36 percent, with 61 percent disapproving of his performance.
In Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton won by only 1.5 points and where Trump’s campaign is likely to make a major effort, an Oct. 14-16 Star Tribune poll found the president losing to the three top Democrats anywhere from 9 points to 12 points in hypothetical ballot tests.
In Wisconsin, which Trump carried in 2016 by less than eight-tenths of a point, an Oct. 13-17 Marquette Law School poll found former Vice President Joe Biden leading him by 6 points, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was up by 2 and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren led by a single point.
A Fox News poll conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in Wisconsin found Biden leading by 9 points, Sanders by 5 and Warren by 4.
In Florida, an Oct. 14-20 University of North Florida poll found Trump stuck at 43 percent or 44 percent against four top Democratic contenders.
He trailed Biden by 5 points and Warren by 3. Trump won 49 percent of the vote in Florida in 2016, carrying the state by only 1.2 points.
In Iowa, an Oct. 13-16 Emerson College poll showed Trump essentially tied with Biden, Sanders and Warren in a state that he carried by 9 points, a serious problem for the president’s team if — and it is a big “if — the Emerson results reflect the actual strength of the candidates in hypothetical ballot tests.
It’s certainly possible that these national and state polls are misleading or flat-out wrong. Circumstances could change, either helping or hurting Trump, and both parties’ prospects won’t become clearer until the Democrats actually have a nominee.
But it’s equally unwise to be wedded to an assumption — e.g., we are headed for another squeaker in 2020 because the Trump and anti-Trump coalitions are largely immovable — that may ignore the possibility that modest defections from Trump combined with a significant change in the behavior of independents/swing voters (including suburban whites with a college degree) could produce substantial changes in the 2020 presidential vote and surprisingly substantial Democratic gains in the Senate.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 29, 2019.
During a brief period when I was working for the political unit of CBS News around the 2006 midterm elections, I attended a pre-election meeting run by Sean McManus and Paul Friedman. McManus was then president of CBS News, while Friedman was vice president.
I remember McManus, who made his mark running CBS Sports, saying he had bumped into a friend or acquaintance who told him the alleged Democratic midterm wave had crested and Republican prospects were rebounding.
Having just had conservations with campaign pollsters, party strategists and political consultants, I knew there was little or no evidence of a dramatic change in the trajectory of the election, and I said so in response to McManus’ anecdote. The midterm wave, including a Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress, was still intact, I observed. (Democrats won control of both chambers that year.)
I recall that my comment didn’t seem to please McManus, but the meeting quickly moved on to other matters. McManus almost certainly had no idea who I was. He never said a word to me.
I relate this memory as a warning about the final month before a national election.
The tendency to draw dramatic conclusions from fragments of data, whispers of alleged movement in polling or supposed anecdotes from a particular campaign is almost uncontrollable in the final few weeks before an election. Both experts and the casually involved are looking for any sign that things are changing, since change is bigger news than continuity.
In some respects, this “last month effect” now happens every day for two years during each election cycle. There are more polls, more airtime to fill on cable TV, and more political and election coverage in general than there ever has been, which has produced more chatter, more speculation and more amateurish analysis.
I’ve warned repeatedly about jumping to conclusions from the latest public poll — my Feb. 12 column “The Generic Is Falling! The Generic Is Falling!” correctly rebutted the widespread assessment that the 2018 midterm’s trajectory was changing — and I am doing so again.
Over the last week, we have seen a seemingly endless flood of stories about new Republican enthusiasm and how that could affect both turnout and election outcomes next month.
“Democrats’ advantage in recent polls may not bring the ‘blue wave’ they’re hoping for,” warned a piece on CNBC.com from an economics reporter, and plenty of talking heads and reporters warned the Kavanaugh Supreme Court fight was energizing Republicans and undercutting the Democratic midterm surge. Take all such assessments with a grain of salt.
My point is not that any single poll, article or talking head is wrong. It is simply a reminder that Republicans (and their media allies over at Fox News) have an interest in arguing that Kavanaugh has changed the midterm dynamics no matter whether or not it has. And even the major mainstream electronic and print media have an incentive to raise questions about a so-called Republican surge.
President Trump certainly is trying to use wedge issues to energize his supporters, and there may well be an uptick in GOP enthusiasm after the recent Supreme Court fight. But based on the past, I’m skeptical the Kavanaugh fight will fundamentally change next month’s outcomes.
Republicans won the Kavanaugh fight, and they now have complete control of the federal government. Traditionally, anger, frustration, disappointment and fear are stronger motivators than satisfaction, relief and euphoria. Democrats and liberals simply are more desperate than are conservatives and Republicans, which is one reason I doubt GOP turnout will match Democratic turnout.
But there are other reasons why the Democratic grassroots advantage should appear on Election Day.
First, while Trump turned out his voters two years ago, allowing him to fashion a narrow win while losing the popular vote, Hillary Clinton lost some Democrats and liberals who saw her as equally flawed. Those Democrats voted for the Green nominee or didn’t vote at all, but they are now likely to turn out to vote against Trump and the GOP next month.
Second, Trump and his party have alienated the single most important swing group: college-educated whites in the suburbs. Many of those voters backed Trump because of their general partisan bent, their hope that Trump would bring about change or their dislike of Clinton. But those voters now dislike Trump and are likely going to vote for Democratic candidates in the fall.
Third, in addition to differences in base turnout, electoral waves can be produced by dramatic swings among independent voters. Those voters could well be crucial in 2018, as I noted in my May 30 column “Why You Should Focus on Independents.” So far, most polls show independent voters swinging strongly to the Democrats.
Finally, polls taken during the Kavanaugh fight probably don’t reflect what the political situation will be like in November. Veteran pollsters always warn that surveys are mere snapshots of public opinion, and dramatic events often produce misleading poll data.
It’s certainly possible that events over the last two weeks have had — or over the next four weeks will have — an impact on voter enthusiasm and turnout. But rather than relying on Rasmussen and Investor’s Business Daily generic ballot polling, I’d wait to see what the NBC News/Wall Street Journal, New York Times/CBS, Washington Post/ABC, Pew, Gallup and CNN polls show.
Right now, the House still looks poised to flip party control, while the Senate does not. That’s the way things have looked for months.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 9, 2018.
It’s increasingly likely that Democratic gubernatorial nominees Phil Murphy in New Jersey and Ralph Northam in Virginia will win their elections next month.
Murphy has a huge lead over GOP nominee Kim Guadagno and is a slam dunk for November. Northam has a more narrow but consistent advantage over Republican Ed Gillespie, an establishment Republican who is echoing some of Trump’s messages about culture and crime.
Unlike New Jersey, the Virginia contest is not over. But given President Donald Trump’s job approval, late-deciding “mood” voters in both states are unlikely to break toward the Republican nominees. That’s part of the reason why midterms are often challenging environments for the president’s party.
But will the two states’ results mean anything, even if the GOP wins both?
Democrats are likely to see their victories as evidence of Republican problems in the 2018 midterms. Many journalists will draw the same conclusion, especially if Gillespie ends up losing by a larger than expected margin.
The White House and many other Republicans, on the other hand, will dismiss the outcomes, arguing that Trump did not carry either state in 2016 and that Republican defeats are to be expected. And they will likely insist that the results may say something about politics in New Jersey and Virginia, or the candidates involved, but nothing more. (They may also argue many Northern Virginians work in “the swamp” and are part of the problem.)
In the case of New Jersey, Republicans surely are correct. Outgoing governor Chris Christie (R) is wildly unpopular, Trump received only 41 percent of the vote in the state, and the Garden State’s partisan bent work strongly against Lt. Gov. Guadagno. The GOP has zero chance of retaining the New Jersey’s governorship.
Democrats have the better argument about Virginia. But the true meaning of that state’s election will depend in part on the details of the results, not merely on who wins and who loses. Here are a number of things to consider as the results come in from the Old Dominion:
Democratic Percentage and Margin
The two parties have split the last six Virginia gubernatorial elections – the GOP winning in 2009, 1997 and 1993, while the Democrats won in 2013, 2005 and 2001 – but that is the extent of the similarities.
The Democratic victory margins were 2.6 points, 5.7 points and 5.2 points. The Republican margins were 17.3 points, 13.2 points and 17.4 points. The largest Democratic percentage of the vote won was by Mark Warner in 2001, when he drew 52.2 percent of the vote. The biggest Democratic margin was Tim Kaine’s 5.7 points.
In last year’s presidential contest, Hillary Clinton drew 49.7 percent of the vote and carried the Commonwealth by 5.3 points. Four years earlier, Barack Obama drew 51.2 percent of the vote in carrying Virginia by just under four points.
The overall picture is difficult to miss. In the best of years, Democrats win Virginia narrowly, with a 5-point victory being about as good as they can do. A Northam victory of about five points would be good for Democrats but should not set off bells and whistles about 2018.
That kind of win would suggest Virginia is about where it was in 2016 and would raise questions about whether Trump voters are losing enthusiasm for their president.
On the other hand, a Northam victory of double-digits (or anything approaching it) would be noteworthy – and worrisome for Republicans. It would suggest either a GOP enthusiasm gap or possibly defections of Trump voters to Northam, either or both an ominous sign for 2018.
Partisan and Demographic Group Turnout
Since elections are often about motivation, Republican and Democratic turnout levels among key demographic groups will be important. For Democrats, black, Hispanic and younger voter turnout should demonstrate whether key demographic groups that underperformed in 2016 are now energized because of the president’s agenda.
These groups won’t turn out at presidential year levels, of course, but comparing their turnout to 2013 numbers and to GOP turnout numbers should tell us something about enthusiasm in both parties.
Geography is also important, so turnout in Northern Virginia – and in all of the state’s counties with suburban swing voters – and rural Virginia should offer possible clues about the mood of usually Republican voters and of Democratic enthusiasm.
While partisan turnout is one side of the electoral equation, turnout by Independents is the other part.
Independent voters are usually less likely to vote in an off- off-year election than are strong partisans, but a dramatic shift in Independent voter preferences can have a substantial impact on both an election’s result and our understanding of Independent voters’ attitudes as the midterms approach.
Independent voters’ turnout and how Independents cast their votes next month could well tell us something more generally about Independent voters across the country.
Regardless of who wins in Virginia, the exit poll is likely to have plenty of nuggets of information about Trump’s standing with key voting groups, Republican and Democratic enthusiasm and why voters are behaving as they do. But you’ll probably need to get into the weeds to get the clearest picture of what is happening and what isn’t.