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.
Whether you are rooting for Republican Ed Gillespie or Democrat Ralph Northam in tomorrow’s Virginia gubernatorial contest, you should pay attention to a handful of demographic data as the exit poll results come in.
Yes, exit polls have a margin of error and each election is different, but the outcome tomorrow is likely to depend as much on the makeup of the electorate as on how particular demographic groups vote.
I looked at exit polls from three recent competitive Virginia general elections – the 2016 presidential race, the 2014 Senate race and the 2013 race for governor – and there definitely are patterns to watch. (I checked the exits for the state’s 2009 gubernatorial contest, but all except the most reliably Democratic demographic groups went for Republican Bob McDonnell.)
Democrat Hillary Clinton won the 2016 race by five points, while Democratic Sen. Mark Warner won by a single point in 2014 and Democrat Terry McAuliffe won his gubernatorial race by three points.
Younger voters went solidly for Clinton, Warner and McAuliffe, while the Republicans in those contests – Donald Trump, Ed Gillespie and Ken Cuccinelli – showed strong appeal among voters age 50 and above.
In 2016, voters 18-44 constituted 43 percent of all voters, but two years earlier, they were only 35 percent of all voters. And in 2013, they were 36 percent of all voters
Don’t expect younger voters to constitute 43 percent of all voters tomorrow (turnout among younger voters always drops off in non-presidential years), but the higher percentage they constitute, the better the news for Northam.
Conversely, Gillespie wants an older electorate. If a majority of the electorate is age 50 and over, Gillespie could have a shot. Of course, he’ll still need to carry those voters by five or six points.
The racial makeup of the electorate surely will also be important.
Whites constituted 72 percent of all voters in Virginia in the 2013 gubernatorial contest, 70 percent of all voters in 2014 Senate race, and 67 percent of all voters in 2016. That drop-off is not unusual, of course, since national numbers show white voters turn out at higher rates than some minority group voters in non-presidential years.
Still, one of the big questions for Ralph Northam is whether he can turn out minority voters, so watching the racial make-up of the electorate is extremely important as the exit polls come in. Gillespie won 60 percent of white voters in his extremely narrow loss to Warner three years ago.
Geographically, the Washington, D.C. suburbs and Northern Virginia’s exurbs could well determine the election’s outcome.
Those two regions accounted for 33% of the electorate in 2013, 35% in 2014 and 36% in 2016. Northam should benefit from a larger turnout in those areas, but he also needs to roll up a large margin to win statewide. Clinton won 68% of the vote in the D.C. suburbs when she carried the state by five points, far better than McAuliffe’s 62% showing and Warner’s 61%.
If Northern Virginia voters don’t turn out, or if they don’t give Northam the margin they gave McAuliffe and Warner, Gillespie could well pull an upset.
Finally, the partisan self-identification of the electorate should be a window into the election.
In 2013, 37% of voters described themselves as Democrats compared to 32% who said they were Republicans. One year later, when the Senate race went down to the wire, the electorate was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (36% each). Two years later, when Clinton won by five points, Democrats constituted 40% all voters compared to 33% who identified as Republicans.
If the 2017 electorate’s partisan mix looks more like it did in 2014, Gillespie’s chances improve. But if a substantial plurality of voters self-identify as Democrats, Northam should be smiling.
There are plenty of other demographics to analyze (gender, education and religion), but the ones I have discussed will get most of my attention tomorrow night. Expect an interesting evening. It’s a must-win election for Northam and the Democratic Party.
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.