Yes, Democrats continue to score wins down-ballot and trumpet these victories as signs of a wave but recent events have not been kind to the out of power party. Donald Trump’s approval has averaged around 43 percent for a week (not seen since last summer) while the Democratic advantage in the generic ballot has shrunk from a commanding 13 points to 4 points since December.
Democrats will counter the polls underestimate their support and they continue to perform better in special elections than Clinton (and sometimes better than Obama). But, Obama was historically strong in many states in both 2008 and 2012 and Clinton was especially weak. As a result, a local Democrat performing sixty points better in a district Trump carried with 80 percent is not that surprising.
Typically, Democrats have underperformed their national poll numbers in recent elections. On the generic ballot Democrats led by as much as 15 points in 2006 and won nationally by 8. In 2008, they led by 11 points and won by as much. In 2010, 2012, and 2014 Republicans either over-performed their numbers or Democrats did worse than the polls suggested. In 2016, Republicans narrowly won the national House vote but still lost a net of six seats (how about that gerrymandering).
Part of this might be due to the power of incumbency (though Republican incumbents lost all the party’s seats in 2016) but it might also have to do with the fact polls tend to sample registered voters of which Democrats dominate. Democrats have never had an issue of registering voters. Getting them to vote has been the bigger issue.
Now, the other shoe might be flipped with college educated voters leaning Democratic and more non-college educated voters favoring the GOP. Is this now the time we see Democratic turnout exceed the polls? Maybe, but there are signs we might not.
The warning signs for Democrats showed up in primaries in TX in March and the recently concluded Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries. In Texas, Democratic turnout in contested primaries was anemic compared to the GOP’s noncompetitive Senate and gubernatorial primaries. Earlier this month, GOP primary turnout eclipsed Democrats while on the same day the news out of Pennsylvania might portend more for November. In a suburban Philly district, the Democrat flipped the GOP seat but only ran ahead of Clinton by three points (far behind other Democratic over-performances) while in a Trump country open seat the GOP flipped a Democratic seat and the nominee only ran two points behind Trump.
First, the President’s approval is ticking up among Republican partisans. This might not mean much in Democratic leaning districts Republicans occupy but it could keep purple or rural red leaning districts in the GOP column if Republicans turn out. This will be particularly crucial in places like GA-6 which are highly educated, white and historically Republican.
Secondly, the doom and gloom Democrats have predicted about the GOP’s tax cuts have not come to pass. Instead, the economy is humming along even as the stock market records historic instability. Polls might show a majority do not see a benefit from the GOP’s tax cuts but few can argue the economy is cruising and this seems to be keeping the GOP afloat. The GOP even has a factually true argument in asserting black unemployment is at a record low.
Third, the GOP is nominating relatively straight forward, conservative nominees. In Indiana, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania the GOP nominated winning candidates. This matters, especially in West Virginia where former coal magnate Don Blankenfield endangered the party’s chances against Joe Manchin.
Lastly, while the GOP civil war arguably cost the party seats in 2010 and 2012 the same might be occurring for Democrats this year. Case in point, NE-2 where former Congressman Brad Ashford was defeated by nonprofit leader Kara Eastman. Eastman ran on universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage to $15 and raising taxes on the wealthy. It is quite conceivable in a district both Romney and Trump barely won she will be open to attacks on her policies. In Idaho, a reach state by far, a progressive, Native American candidate defeated the establishment favorite for Governor.
Incumbent Democrats are also being forced to watch their flanks. In West Virginia, Joe Manchi won his primary against a progressive challenger with an unimpressive 70 percent. In Oregon, two centrist Democratic legislators lost their primaries. In local races in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, progressive and actual Socialist party candidates swept to power. These local races might not reverberate this year but in the future they could drive the party even further left.
Even data guru Sean Trende, who has been writing off the GOP House for months, is now changing his tune. Trende now sees the House as 50/50 for the first time in months. A lot of it has to do with Trump who’s increasing approval has benefited his party and allowed GOP support to grow into the 40’s. The question now is whether Trump can keep his temper and antics in check and let the economy and his foreign policy successes speak for themselves?
Additionally, there might be an X-factor. Buried in a recent Morning Consult survey was this question, “Would an endorsement from Nancy Pelosi would make you more or less likely to support a candidate, 49 percent of self-identified Hillary Clinton supporters said “less.” This is a problem for the party because it indicates their candidates are open to being attacked as Pelosi supporters if they are not Conor Lamb and the Democratic civil war is alive and well, seemingly carrying over from 2016.
So, buck up Republicans, things are looking up. Especially if you can bring reluctant Trump supporters back on board.