Midterm Polls Shifting Republican

The race is returning to expectation.

WaPo’s Aaron Blake points to “The growing warning signs for Democrats in 2022.”

For months, Democrats’ polling gains, strong special-election performances and surprising leads in key Senate races have come with important caveats.

Those caveats? The party that holds the presidency loses the vast majority of midterms, and the fundamentals — both President Biden’s approval rating and perceptions of the economy — still pointed to a tough 2022. What’s more, the polls have been off in recent elections (usually overestimating Democrats’ prospects when they are) — and what happens if and when Republican-oriented voters come home to candidates they might not love?

It appears to be happening. And those caveats now appear in effect, with the GOP’s chances of winning both chambers growing.

Monmouth University poll released Thursday is the latest to suggest the 2022 election is moving in the GOP’s direction. It shows Republicans with a four-point lead on the question of which party American adults prefer to run Congress. That’s the GOP’s best showing since May — before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Republicans also lead by six points among registered voters, specifically.

And it’s not the only one. Other high-profile media polls which test the generic ballot — that is, would you prefer a generic Democrat or a generic Republican — have also shown a modest shift in the GOP’s direction. And FiveThirtyEight’s average of generic ballot polls now favors Republicans for the first time since early August.

The GOP’s lead is narrow, but both history and the setup of our political map indicate even a neutral environment favors Republican gains. That could well mean GOP takeovers of both the House and the Senate, given the razor-thinness of the margins in each chamber.

In a vacuum, none of this is surprising. We knew from the moment Biden took office that he was likely to face a Republican majority in one, if not both, Houses of Congress come January 2023. That his approval ratings are very bad (“identical to Donald Trump’s approval rating at a similar point in his presidency, but lower than those of some other recent presidents in the run-up to their first midterm election”), inflation is eating away people’s life savings at a rate not seen in decades, and people are worried about whether they can afford to heat their homes this winter are not helpful signs.

The trend isn’t surprising. As both Steven (especially) and I have been hammering ad infinitum, our system is one of binary choices. If you don’t like the way things are going, you vote for the other party.

At the same time, even we Vulcan political science types get caught up in the dynamics of individual campaigns, even though people who specialize in these things have been finding that they have only marginal impact for decades. That the Republicans have, in race after race after race, nominated weirdos, morons, and psychopaths—categories that are not mutually exclusive—surely matters! Not as much as you’d think.

Perhaps most troublesome for the GOP right now, though, is how polls are trending in some key Senate races.

Holding the House has long been seen as the taller task for Democrats: Not all states are holding Senate races, and several GOP Senate candidates have seemed to underperform. A big reason for the latter: Voters just didn’t really like those GOP nominees.

But, as we’ve noted before, that gave those GOP candidates room to grow. Voters who perhaps didn’t like them but were predisposed toward the GOP and against Biden might ultimately close ranks.

There’s evidence that’s precisely what has happened.

Which, again, isn’t surprising. I’m a political junkie who voted Republican in eight straight presidential elections before leaving the party in disgust over the nomination of Donald Trump. So, I can attest that candidates matter. But I was never a single-issue voter. I can fully understand why someone who was a “values” voter whose vote was mostly about ending the scourge of abortion would have simultaneously thought Trump a disgusting reprobate and yet held their nose and voted for him. And, frankly, that voter was handsomely rewarded by Trump’s selection of three Justices who voted to overturn Roe v Wade after 49 years.

In Pennsylvania, a new AARP poll this week showed Republican Mehmet Oz closing to within two points in a race that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) once led by double digits.

A big reason? Oz’s favorability rating rose from 30 percent in June to 38 percent today. Republicans viewed Oz favorably by just a 15-point margin back then, but they now view him favorably by a 44-point margin.

Oz is a ridiculous candidate. But, again, the vote is about who controls the Senate: the pro-Biden team or the anti-Biden team. That Fetterman recently had a stroke and appears severely hampered by its after-effects isn’t helping matters, either.

In Ohio, Republican J.D. Vance has asserted a lead in the polling average after trailing previously. And again we can look to image ratings. As recently as last month, a Suffolk University poll showed his opponent Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) had a surprisingly solid image rating among Republicans, at negative-26 (19 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable). The same poll now shows Republicans dislike Ryan by a 56-point margin, while Vance’s image has improved modestly.

There’s similar movement in a third race in which Democrats seemed to have hope of a pickup: Wisconsin. Polling from Marquette University Law School has shown Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) moving from down seven in August, to virtually tied last month, to now leading by six points among likely voters. During that span, he’s gone from an image rating of plus-55 with GOP-leaning voters to plus-74.

In Georgia, Herschel Walker hasn’t benefited from a similar shift. But that’s in part because his image was already strong in the GOP, and it doesn’t appear to have suffered much despite an allegation that he paid for an abortion more than a decade ago. The race remains tight, with perhaps a slight edge for Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.).

The evidence is less compelling in Arizona, where we just don’t have as much high-quality polling. But a recent CBS News/YouGov poll showed Republican Blake Masters within three points of Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) despite 63 percent of voters disliking Masters personally.

Masters remains an underdog, but all of these races appears to be in play for the GOP, and winning four or even just three of them could translate into a GOP Senate majority. That seems very possible if things continue to close in the GOP’s direction in the final two-plus weeks of the campaign — particularly if gas prices don’t drop and if abortion is indeed waning as a campaign issue, as some indicators suggest it could be.

The Georgia and Arizona races are the ones most fascinating to me. In both cases, Democrats have nominated incredibly likable, competent, mainstream guys who won special elections to fill vacant, Republican-held seats. Warnock is a preacher and Kelly is a retired Navy captain and astronaut. Republicans have nominated guys who simply aren’t Senatorial material to run against them. And the races are tight.

Again, candidates matter to a degree. Walker is running neck-and-neck while the Republican governor seems to be running away with his rematch with Stacey Abrams. But, even aside from his celebrity as a football hero, Walker is the only option if you want someone to vote against Biden’s agenda for the next two years and, hopefully from the standpoint of a Republican voter, for the agenda of that party’s President for the four years after that.

Democrats were never really favorites to hold both chambers; it was always about whether they had a shot to beat history, particularly in the Senate. Their odds of doing that appear to be declining.

The FiveThirtyEight forecast, updated around 12 hours ago, looks like this:

Obviously, the odds of the Democrats holding the House are long. But we’re still a ways out and 21 in 100 isn’t much worse than the 29 in 100 chance the same folks gave Donald Trump in 2016, and we all know how that turned out. So, there’s a chance!

The real question mark, then, is the Senate. You’d rather be in the Democrats’ shoes here, of course. But it’s really, really tight.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott is claiming that his party will win 52 seats and that 55 are within reach. The former strikes me as optimistic and the latter a fantasy. But the fact that there are so many close races, including in states that went for Biden over Trump in 2022, means it’ll probably be a nail-biter through the election.

I’m not getting a sense that this is a “wave” election, though, so expect it to be a matter of the Democrats holding with 50 or 51 seats or the GOP wresting back control with 51.

Nate Silver considers the race a “toss-up,” even though his own models show Democrats with a 59 percent chance of winning.

[T]he polls could overstate support for Democrats again, as they did in 2016 and 2020. This is a complicated subject; I mostly think the model does a good job of accounting for this, and one should keep in mind there’s also the possibility that the polls could be biased against Democrats. But I’m not entirely confident, so my mental model is slightly more favorable to the GOP than the FiveThirtyEight forecast itself. It’s worth noting, though, that some of the states where people had been most concerned about the polls being wrong, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, have shown a shift toward the GOP in recent weeks.

But the main reason why I think of the race for control of the Senate as a toss-up — rather than slightly favoring Democrats — is because there’s been steady movement toward the GOP in our model over the past few weeks. In principle, past movement shouldn’t predict future movement in our forecast and it should instead resemble a random walk. (We put a lot of effort in our modeling into trying to minimize autocorrelation.) This year, though, the forecast has moved in a predictable-seeming way, with a long, slow and steady climb toward Democrats over the summer, and now a consistent shift back toward Republicans.

What’s produced this pattern? It’s hard to know whether it reflects the real state of the race or is an artifact of how our model works. The summer produced an unusual streak of favorable developments for Democrats, from the backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, to lower gas prices, to former President Donald Trump’s unhelpful involvement in the midterms, to a string of legislative victories for President Biden. There is, of course, a tendency to see patterns in random noise, but it’s as though the coin really did come up heads for Democrats six or seven times in a row.

From a modeling standpoint, another challenge is that Democrats were defying political gravity. The president’s party typically performs poorly in the midterms. There have been some exceptions and there is some reason to think this year may be one of them. But the model has been trying to balance polls showing Democrats having a pretty good year against its prior expectation that the electoral environment should be poor for Democrats.

As the election nears, the model relies on its priors less and trusts the polls more, so it was initially skeptical of buying into a post-Dobbs surge for Democrats. Right about the time the model had fully priced in Democrats’ improved polling, though, the news cycle shifted toward a set of stories that were more favorable for Republicans, such as immigration and renewed concerns about inflation.

It’s also possible to overstate the case for Republican momentum. Midterm elections tend not to turn on a dime in the way that presidential elections sometimes do. And there haven’t been any self-evidently important developments in the news cycle in the past week or so. If you’re one of those people who thinks gas prices are all-determining of election outcomes, they’ve even started to come down again slightly.

Rather, this is more a case of now having more evidence to confirm that the Democrats’ summer polling surge wasn’t sustainable.

Honestly, this strikes me as just more evidence that even Vulcans aren’t logical. Silver is a numbers guy but, in a close race, he worries that his team is going to lose somehow and doesn’t trust the model.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2022, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    So much wishcasting. Clicks are better than democracy. Or perhaps it’s just a habit of mind. Republicans win, Democrats lose, as they have since St. Ronnie appeared on the scene. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “the Vulcans,” James, but Silver’s team is Team Trump and has been for some time.

    [I hate the practice of recycling names and acronyms to create confusion. George Bush’s foreign policy team were “the Vulcans.” Let’s find another name for whomever you mean.]

    Besides the EpiBros, you might want to look at Tom Bonier, who has a new website with numbers the Bros seem to be ignoring. Bonier finds unusual numbers of women and young people registering to vote since Dobbs. He’s following the early voting numbers, which are up from 2020 and higher in people of color. All that supports my wishcasting.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: By “Vulcans,” I mean the fictional planet from the Star Trek universe, of which Spock was the most famous denizen. They prized logic above all else.

    I don’t think Silver, who is openly gay, is a Trumper. I think he’s just looking at the numbers and seeing a regression to the mean after an extended Democratic swing.

    10
  3. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Ah well, I don’t see any polls coming from that fictional planet.

    Peter Thiel, who is openly gay, is a Trumper. The two are not mutually exclusive. Throughout the pandemic, Silver has shown that his emotions trump (sorry) the numbers.

    Take a look at Bonier. Here are two tweets from this morning. He seems actually to be looking at the numbers, not relying on old canards like “regression to the mean.”

    The early/mail vote thus far is a good bit older than it was at this point in ’20 (age 65 were 22% of votes cast at this point in ’20, and 30% now) and slightly older than this point in ’18. This is a good example of how comparisons in early vote will need to come with caveats.

    Take PA. The age distribution there thus far is in line with the national trend. Way older than ’20, somewhat older than ’18. But voting patterns have changed. In ’20 64% of young voters cast their ballot in person on Election Day. In the primary this year that went up to 80%.

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  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I dunno, my district’s Republiqan candidate advocates for

    Kent, who has called COVID a scam and opposed vaccines, recently called for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, to be charged with murder.

    At Tuesday’s debate, in a response that drew both guffaws and applause from the crowd, he again called for Fauci to be “held accountable,” accusing him of funding “the people who cooked up COVID.”

    People who will vote for that deserve whatever happens. 🙁 On the positive side, some voters saw it for the ridiculous joke that it is. On the downside, two Trump candidates gained a little more than two thirds of the Republiqan primary vote over a more or less sane Republiqan Trump supporter (she voted to impeach the second time). If I were a betting man, I would bet on the downside as who my fellow citizens are. Laissez les bons temps roullez.

    1
  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Link to the quote with my apologies for not including it: https://www.chronline.com/stories/in-congressional-debate-joe-kent-mocks-vaccines-marie-gluesenkamp-perez-calls-him-extremist,300747

    At least it’s only Congress. The Republiqans will take control and squander their opportunity to control the agenda of the nation. Wouldn’t want to be Ukranian next year, but I think being a senior citizen with a modest pension beyond Social Security will turn out okay even if the Republiqans try to govern instead of just working on making a one-term President and new circuses. We’ll need a new one with the FG hearings ending.

  6. Jen says:

    This is normal and should be expected. Turnout is everything–it will be close and hopefully Democrats get out and vote.

    The fact that a very silly person like Dr. Oz is within striking distance of winning a seat in *the U.S. Senate* is effin’ unbelievable. Ditto for that doorstop Herschel Walker.

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  7. Jax says:

    @Jen: I just want to wake up November 9th and find alllllll the crazies resoundingly rejected. Boebert. MTG. Walker. Vance. Masters. Oz. I realize it’s a big ask, but a girl can dream!

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  8. Kathy says:

    @Jen:

    I know that feeling.

    I just recall what happened in 2016. If that disaster can happen, anything can.

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  9. Modulo Myself says:

    I suspect that Dobbs did create an opportunity, but it sounds like the big spenders in the primaries for the Democrats are not showing up for the general election.

    According to Slate: “Almost every major moderate super PAC that spent lavishly in Democratic primaries in the spring and summer has stopped spending to help Democrats with just weeks to go.”

    For whatever reason there has been an absolute mental breakdown by centrists and moderates in the past two years. They needed to believe that Chesa Boudin was a bigger threat to order than a Republican-led collapse into the dumbest police state the world has ever seen. Well, their beautiful dreams may have come true.

  10. Kathy says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    A referendum is the central plot point in Diane Duane’s Spock’s World.

    That’s at least one fictional Vulcan poll. 😀

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  11. CSK says:
  12. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    I think some people, maybe most, don’t understand what denying the 2020 election means.

    Look at it this way. whatever one thinks of the 2020 election, it’s done. Biden’s in, Benito is out, and that’s that. The result won’t change, it can’t change, and who cares any more?

    That’s not the issue, but try and explain what the issue really is.

  13. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    What I think some of them believe is that if the Republicans take the House and Senate in November, Biden will be evicted from office and replaced by Trump.

    Others just say it because they hope it will garner them votes.

  14. Andy says:

    Honestly, this strikes me as just more evidence that even Vulcans aren’t logical. Silver is a numbers guy but, in a close race, he worries that his team is going to lose somehow and doesn’t trust the model.

    The alternative explanation is that, as a numbers guy, he doesn’t trust the model.

    IMO, most of these predictions are little more than guesses and I think Silver is right to not trust his own model.

    Polling has been the only semi-objective analytical metric we’ve had historically – pretty much everything else is some form of biased punditry and wishcasting, or at least highly reliant on questionable assumptions.

    And now polling is not very reliable in competitive races. There was, for instance, a Democratic bias in polling in 2016 and 2020 – but those were Presidential elections. What actual evidence do we have that those biases remain in place today, and how big are they? The answer is we don’t know. Silver and others who are modeling this stuff are making education assumptions.

    So personally, I wouldn’t trust any predictions that claim confidence, given the uncertainty.

  15. Gustopher says:

    If the Democrats lose the House or Senate, I hope they are prepared to raise the debt ceiling enough for a few years in the lame duck session, pass a two year continuing resolution (is that legal?), and give two years of weapons to Ukraine.

    The Republicans will try to destroy the country to improve their 2024 chances. And also appease Putin by cutting off Ukraine.

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  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jen:

    The fact that a very silly person like Dr. Oz is within striking distance of winning a seat in *the U.S. Senate* is effin’ unbelievable. Ditto for that doorstop Herschel Walker.

    Alas, it’s not effin’ unbelievable at all, merely a sign of who 47% (significantly more in these cases 🙁 ) of “WE THE PEOPLE” are.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Modulo Myself: “… an absolute mental breakdown by centrists and moderates…”

    Centered and moderate relative to what? Given the cliff the lemmings of the GQP have scampered off,* there’s a lot off pretty hard hearted, bigoted, stupid, dysfunctional, and destructive behavior from the right that has moved into the territory of “the socialist left.”

    *And I can’t remember the source anymore, but it turns out that the scene from the Disney nature movie with the lemmings running of the cliff was staged–it seems the lemmings wouldn’t do it on their own and had to be pushed off. 🙁

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: “And also appease Putin by cutting off Ukraine.”

    Surely no, you must be wrong. Just a few weeks ago people in this very forum were telling me that I was unrealistically cynical about Republicans regarding the Ukraine. They would stick to the program fer shur as it was the only thing both sides supported. Has something changed?

  19. Mister Bluster says:
  20. Jen says:

    An absolutely gutting 8-minute video on the impact of abortion bans in the wake of the dismantling of Roe. The matter-of-fact way she reads through these stories is devastating.

    Republicans don’t deserve to get elected if they support this.

  21. Hal_10000 says:

    Honestly, the governor and SoS races are far more important to me. That’s going to determine whether 2024 is a normal election or a complete BS meltdown.

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