Two Days Away, A Split Decision Congress Seems Likely

With less than forty-eight hours to go until voters head to the polls, the odds are pointing to a Democratic House and a Republican Senate.

In just under forty-eight hours, voters will head to the polls across the country in what amounts to the first real electoral test for President Trump and the Republican Party after two years of one-party rule at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. For the better part of this year, we’ve seen the polls swing back and forth in both the Generic Congressional Ballot and the individual head-to-head Senate races that have been considered competitive. Initially, at least, the numbers seemed as though everything was breaking in favor of the Democrats, with polls indicating that they were headed for both pickup in the House of Representatives that would lead to a change in control in that body for the first time since 2010. In the Senate, the fact that voter enthusiasm seemed to be leaning in the Democrats direction suggested that Democrats would be able to hold on to many of the seats up for grabs in states that President Trump won in 2016 and that they would be able to flip a seat or two in states such as Nevada, Arizona, and Tennessee to gain control of the upper chamber as well. That began to change in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings. At that point, Republicans began to become as enthusiastic about voting as Democrats were, and this caused polls in several states to start shifting in favor of Republicans. This has led to the probability, if not the likelihood, that we would end Election Night with a split decision in Congress, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans hanging on to control of the Senate. Based on the late polling, that still seems to be the most likely outcome.

The last ABC News/Washington Post poll, for example, shows Democrats maintaining their lead in the generic ballot, but also shows that good economic news and the President’s focus on immigration and the border could help Republicans in marginal races:

Heading into Tuesday’s critical midterm elections, Democrats retain their advantage in the battle for the House, but Republicans could be buoyed by increasingly positive assessments of the economy and by President Trump’s harsh focus on the issues of immigration and border security, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News national poll.

The poll finds that registered voters prefer Democratic candidates for the House over Republican candidates by 50 percent to 43 percent. That marks a slight decline from last month, when Democrats led on the generic congressional ballot by 11 points, and a bigger drop from August, when they enjoyed a 14-point advantage.

Democrats also have a 51-to- 44 percent advantage among likely voters identified by The Post. That seven-point margin, which is in line with other polls taken in the past two weeks, puts Democrats roughly within range of what they probably will need in the overall national vote for the House to capture a majority from the Republicans, based on calculations from previous midterm campaigns.

However, there is no way to translate the national numbers into the district-by-district competition that will ultimately decide who controls the House in January. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to capture control of the House. Public and private polls of individual races conducted by candidates, political party committees, the media and others show many contests still within the margin of error.

Republican candidates in competitive House districts, almost a third of which backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, threaten to be dragged down by the president’s unpopularity. Presidents with approval ratings as low as Trump’s have generally suffered significant losses in midterm elections. But this president has shown over time that historical statistical benchmarks don’t always apply to him.

Trump’s approval rating among all adults stands at 40 percent, holding steady from a poll in early October and slightly higher than his 36 percent rating in August. Those who disapprove account for 53 percent. Among registered voters, Trump’s approval is 44 percent, with disapproval at 52 percent, the best margin among this group during his presidency.


The president’s focus on immigration appears to have raised the importance of the issue in the minds of his party’s voters ahead of Tuesday’s voting. Since a Post-ABC News poll three weeks ago, the share of Republicans saying immigration is “one of the most important issues” in their vote has grown from 14 percent to 21 percent. The share of Democrats saying immigration is a top issue has dropped from 23 percent to 11 percent.

When all voters were asked which party they trust more to handle immigration, Democrats were slightly favored by 47 to 42 percent over Republicans. But on border security, which has been the principal focus of the president, Republicans are more trusted by 49 percent to 39 percent.

Those who rank immigration as one of the most important issues in the election favor Republicans over Democrats by 12 points when choosing a generic congressional candidate, though the gap among this group is tenuous given its large error margin. For those who say border security is one of their top issues, Republicans lead Democrats by 42 points on the House vote.

Those groups who have shifted toward Republicans on the issues of immigration since early October include white men without college degrees, voters over age 65 and voters who live in rural areas — all staples of the coalition that elected the president two years ago.

Democrats hold a lead almost as large — 39 points — among those voters who rank health care as one of the single most important issues. They lead by 69 points among those for whom global warming is one of the most important issues and by 46 points among those who say reducing divisions in the country is a top issue.

Overall, 17 percent of voters consider health care and reducing the country’s divisions as among the single most important issues — about the same as the economy (15 percent) and immigration (14 percent). When looking more broadly at issues voters say are at least “very important,” health care and the economy top the list at 78 percent and 76 percent, respectively, followed by reducing political divisions, immigration, taxes, border security and global warming.

The final NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reports similar findings:

WASHINGTON — Democrats hold a 7-point advantage over Republicans in the final national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll before Tuesday’s midterm elections, with both parties showing record enthusiasm and interest in the upcoming contests.

Fifty percent of likely voters say they prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, while 43 percent want Republicans in charge. That’s down from Democrats’ 9-point advantage in October’s NBC/WSJ poll, though the change is well within the poll’s margin of error.

Democrats lead with likely African-American voters (84 percent to 8 percent), Latinos (57 percent to 29 percent), voters ages 18-34 (57 percent to 34 percent), women (55 percent to 37 percent) and independents (35 percent to 23 percent).

Among white women with college degrees, the Democratic edge is 28 points, 61 percent to 33 percent.

Republicans, meanwhile, are ahead among voters ages 50-64 (52 percent to 43 percent), men (50 percent to 43 percent) and whites (50 percent to 44 percent).

Among white women without college degrees, Republicans have a 12-point advantage, 54 percent to 42 percent. And among white men without college degrees, it’s 35 points, 65 percent to 30 percent.

“It is a political kaleidoscope,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, whose firm conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “You turn the poll one way, and it looks [good for Democrats].”

But you turn it another way, Hart adds, “you can see how the GOP squeaks through.”

“It has closed. It is a more competitive race,” says McInturff, the Republican pollster. “But for Republicans, it feels slightly short of where you’d want to be for a national election.”

Both Democratic and Republican voters are expressing a record-level of enthusiasm heading into Tuesday’s elections. Eighty-five percent of likely Democratic voters have a high level of interest in the midterms — registering either a “nine” or “10” on a 10-point scale — versus 82 percent for Republicans.

Among all registered voters, 70 percent are highly interested in the election, which is up from 61 percent in 2006 and 2010.


Trump’s job rating among likely voters is 46 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove – essentially unchanged from October’s 45 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove.

(Among registered voters, it’s an equal 46 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove.)

Only 37 percent of registered voters approve of Trump’s handling of the recent shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and just 39 percent back his handling of the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats.

But only 22 percent of voters said these events had a significant impact on their vote, versus 75 percent who said they had no significant impact.

A plurality of registered voters — 40 percent — say their vote will be a signal of opposition to Trump, compared with 32 percent who say it will be a signal of support; 28 percent say it will not be a signal either way.

Forty-one percent say their vote will be a message for more Democrats to check and balance Trump and congressional Republicans, versus 31 percent who say it will be a message for more Republicans to help Trump and the GOP pass their agenda.

Asked differently, however, 43 percent of voters say they are more concerned Republicans will go too far in supporting Trump, while an equal 43 percent say they are more concerned that the Dems will go too far in obstructing the president.

But 59 percent of registered voters say they want a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of change in direction from the way President Donald Trump has been leading the country, versus a combined 38 percent who want no change, not that much change or just some change.

Those numbers are virtually identical to our September poll — and are close to what the NBC/WSJ poll found from 1994 (when Democrats lost control of Congress) and 2010 (when they lost the House).

“This will be an election that, like most first midterms of a new president, fundamentally is a referendum on President Trump,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates.

These are the two most recent polls since we last looked at the national polling last Tuesday, and the poll averages have therefore stayed roughly where they were then:

The polling averages and forecasts, meanwhile, show similar numbers:

  • In the RealClearPolitics average, Democrats ( 49.3%) have a +7.0 point lead over Republicans (42.3%), which is slightly better for Republicans from the picture last week;
  • In the Pollster average, Democrats (48.8%) have a +8.1 point lead over Republicans (40.7%), a slight increase in the Democratic advantage;
  • In the FiveThirtyEight average, Democrats (50.5%) have a +8.1 point lead over Republicans (42.4%), a slight decrease in the Democratic advantage; and,
  • The FiveThirtyEight House Forecast gives Democrats an 84.6% chance at winning the House and gives Republicans a 15.4% chance of holding on to the House. This is a slight decrease in the Democratic advantage, an increase in the odds for Republicans.

All of this is reflected in the RealClearPolitics chart:

Taking into account both the continued Democratic advantage in the Generic Ballot and polling from individual battleground districts around the country, the numbers continue to favor the idea that Democrats will pick up enough seats to win back control of the House. To get there, Democrats will need to win at least 23 seats just to get to a bare majority. The continued Democratic advantage in the Generic Congressional Ballot, in fundraising, as well as polls from individual battleground districts around the country, suggest strongly that Democrats stand to pick up at least enough seats to win control of the House of Representatives. In order to get there, Democrats need to pick up at least 23 seats to just get to a bare one-seat majority. At this point, the odds that they will be able to accomplish that are looking very good. Depending on which projection you look at, and depending of course on what the voting demographic ends up looking like, Democrats could end up picking up as few as 25-30 seats, which would give them a slim majority, or they could end up with something on the higher end such as 30-40 seats, which would mean a more comfortable majority. Somewhat less likely are the odds that they’ll be able to repeat their success in 2006, or the GOP’s success in 2010 and pick up something closer to 50-60 seats, which would give them a strong majority that could theoretically stand through the 2020 elections. It also seems unlikely at this point that Republicans will be able to hold on to control of the House even by a slim majority, something that would be a clear win for the GOP.  All four of these outcomes, or some variation thereof, are possible, of course, but the most likely possibility appear to be those that have Democrats picking up a decent enough number of seats to have a comfortable majority starting in January 2019, something that would obviously have a big impact on how Washington will work from that point to January 2021.

Over in the Senate, things are not quite as optimistic for Democrats and the probability of Republicans holding on to the upper chamber of Congress seems to be increasing. Much of this appears to be due to the impact that the Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation have had on the race for the Senate, an impact that does not appear at the moment to be carrying over to the battle for control of the House of Representatives. Prior to the Kavanaugh hearings, Democrats seemed to be well positioned to flip Senate seats in states such as Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee and were even holding their own in red states such as North Dakota and Missouri. Now, there’s evidence that Republican candidates have turned the tide in all of these states and are well positioned in others:

  • In Nevada, where Senator Dean Heller was trailing his Democratic opponent Jacky Rosen for most of the past year, recent polling has been trending the incumbent’s way to the point where Heller (46.8%) still has a +1.4 point advantage over Rosen (45.4%) in the RealClearPolitics average.;
  • The situation is similar in the battle in Arizona for Jeff Flake’s seat. Previously, Democratic nominee Kyrsten Sinema had been leading Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally. In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, though, the polls began to shift toward Congresswoman Martha McSally, the Republican nominee. Over the past week, though, the polling has taken yet another turn, and Sinema (47.9%) now has a slim +1.0 lead over McSally (46.9%) Whether this is a sign of a last-minute shift back toward Sinema or a statistical blip is something that we won’t know until the votes are counted;
  • Moving north to Montana, Democratic Senator Jon Tester (47.0%) has a +4.2 point lead over Republican Matt Rosendale (42.8%);
  • Just to the east in North Dakota, Republican Kevin Cramer (53.7%) has led Senator Heidi Heitkamp by double digits in some recent polling and he now has a +11.4 point average lead over Senator Heidi Heitkamp (42.3%) to RealClearPolitics;
  • Heading south to Texas, in a race where various polls in the past have shown Congressman Beto O’Rourke to be competitive against Senator Ted Cruz, recent polls have shown Cruz pulling ahead significantly and the incumbent Senator (51.2%) now has a +6.5 point lead over the Congressman (44.7%);
  • Up in Missouri, recent polling has shown the race between state Attorney General Josh Hawley tied with Senator Claire McCaskill at 46.0% each. This has largely been due to a last-minute surge in the polls on the part of McCaskill. Whether that surge will put her over the top again this year remains to be seen;
  • In nearby Indiana, we’ve also seen a last-minute surge in the polling to incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly (43.4%), who now has a narrow +0.8 point lead over Indiana State Representative Mike Braun (42.6%) in a race that also
  • In Tennessee, the Democratic nominee, and former Governor, Phil Breseden has lost the lead he once had over Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and Blackburn (49.2%) now has a +5.2 point lead in the polling average over Breseden (44.0%); and,
  • Finally, in Florida, the picture is still looking good for Democratic Senator Bill Nelson (47.4%) but his average lead only stands at a slim +1.4 points and Florida Governor Rick Scott (46.0%).

To give you an idea of what this means in terms of what we can expect in the Senate, the FiveThirtyEight Senate Forecast gives Republicans an 85.0% chance of holding on to the Senate and Democrats just a 15.0% chance of capturing the Senate. The projection gives the GOP a 17.8% chance of keeping the 51-49 majority they have now, a 17.4% chance of increasing their majority to 52-48, and a 13.8% chance of getting a 53-47 seat majority, and a 14.9% chance of a 50-50 split that would result in the GOP maintaining control due to Vice-President Pence’s tie-breaking vote. The probabilities of other scenarios where the GOP increases its majority beyond 53-47 are all given less than a 10% chance as of today. The RealClearPolitics forecast meanwhile, puts 50 seats in the GOP column and 44 in the Democratic column, with 6 seats listed as “toss-ups.” Without toss-ups, the RealClearPolitics forecast puts the GOP at 52 seats and the Democrats at 48 seats.

In other red states or states that President Trump won in 2016, such as West VirginiaWisconsinMichigan, and Pennsylvania, the Democratic incumbents are all leading their Republican opponents by double digits or nearly doing so (Debbie Stabenow is at +9.7 points in Michigan), suggesting that their seats are safe. On the whole, though, the trend at the Senate level is at the clearly in the Republican’s favor. Given the map that the parties are dealing with this year, where there are far more Democrats up for re-election than there are Republicans, and far more Democratic seats that are vulnerable, this isn’t entirely surprising. However, until the Kavanaugh hearings, it appears as though the trend in the Senate was starting to favor Democrats. For now, at least, that trend has completely reversed itself and Republicans seem to be poised to hold on to control of the Senate and to possibly even pick up a seat or two from their current 51-49 seat majority. If these numbers hold up, then we’ll not only end up with a divided government but a divided Congress much like we saw from 2011 through 2014 when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats controlled the Senate and, of course, the White House. If this is how things turn out on Election Night, then it will at the very least mean that Republicans will be able to continue to confirm Judicial and other nominees with no significant ability on the part of Democrats to do very much about it.

Update (11/5/2018): Two new (final) Generic Ballot polls were released this morning:

Both of these polls appear to be outliers at the opposite extremes of where most of the final polls are.

FILED UNDER: 2018 Election, Congress, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Here in Misery I have seen a lot of advertisements in my mail attacking Hawley as not being a true conservative, weak on the 2nd amendment, insufficiently trumpist, and blaming him for Grietens removal from the governorship. One was from Craig O’Dear and the others were either anonymous or I forgot who sent it.

    I haven’t gotten a single anti McCaskill advert in weeks.

    No conclusions, just anecdata, FWIW.

  2. James Pearce says:

    I think Mike Coffman’s going down. Guy’s been running a kind of goofy campaign. The people who vote for him can’t trust him, and the swing voters aren’t persuaded.

    I’m personally mad that he didn’t get me a White House tour. Jason Crow all the way. (I’m mostly kidding. But F Mike Coffman.)

  3. Todd says:

    I’ll start off by saying that we’ll all find out Tuesday night/Wednesday morning what’s going to happen. But if you follow the data experts, the conclusion of this post (Dems take the House, GOP keeps the Senate) seems to be the consensus opinion. That being said, Nate Silver has been making the same cautions that he did leading up to the 2016 elections. He’s said that there would have to be a systemic polling error (which are more frequent than most people think) for either the GOP to keep the House or for the Democrats to take the Senate.

    This could just be wishful thinking on my part, but it seems that in what appears as though it will be a record high turnout environment, any systemic polling error is more likely to end up being in the Democrat’s favor. In other words, I’d be much more surprised (and honestly depressed) to wake up Wednesday morning to learn that the GOP somehow held onto the House, than to hear that Democrats took the Senate; possibly even by shockingly running the board and winning every competitive race, including North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas. Unfortunately in the Senate, even on a good Democratic night I also wouldn’t be terribly surprised to learn that the Democrats end up down a seat by picking up AZ and NV, but losing ND, MO & IN and falling just short in both TX and TN. (I said months ago that I think McCaskill and Donnelly are the two Dems most likely to lose).

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Todd: I think it may very well take a week or 2, maybe even a month.

  5. mattbernius says:

    It seems to me that the entire notion that “if the Democrats don’t take both chambers, they fail” completely fails to really account for recent history. As I posted elsewhere (and Doug notes above), for context, in 2010, during the Tea Party “rebuke” of Obama, the Republicans only captured the House. At the time, that was seen as a huge moment politically.

    Republicans would not capture the Senate for another four years (2014).

    So if the Tea Party takeover of the house was meaningful, why wouldn’t the same be true of a democratic takeover?