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.
A 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.
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.