The 2018 Midterms Are Not Looking Like A Wave Yet

Democrats have an eight point lead on the generic ballot.  Yet, Trump is more popular than he has ever been.  Over 50 Democratic challengers outraised their GOP counterparts.  Yet, the RNC outraised the DNC and GOP SuperPACs raked in record sums compared to Democratic alternatives.  Democrats are scoring leads in critical Congressional races.  Yet, polls show deadlocked races in blue states.

Noticing a pattern here?  For every data-point pointing to a blue wave there is a counterpoint.  Not that this has stopped Democratic cheerleaders like Chris Cillizza was arguing we will have a blue wave in November.

Now, to be fair, I like Chris.  He is a great analyst and until recently I religiously read his stuff.  But, since Trump, he has regurgitated lefty talking points so it is little wonder he is on the blue wave bandwagon.  I would have thought being wrong in 2016 would teach him some humility like it taught Nate Cohn.  Guess not.

In a recent article, Cilizza argues how all the signs point to big gains for Democrats.  He notes Larry Sabato has moved 8 House races to toss-up from Lean GOP.  True, but the vast majority of these seats are either true swing seats either way or feature damaged Republicans.  A total of 34 seats are now ranked toss-up that are currently held by the GOP. Most other analysis sites back up Konik’s findings.

Cilizza also cites the generic ballot now decisively favoring Democrats an individual Monmouth survey finding a Democrat in rural PA pulling away from his GOP challenger.  Finally, Cillizza cites fundraising data showing multiple Democrats outraising GOP opponents.  Typically, fundraising points to excitement.

All these are relevant points but there are just as important counterpoints here.  First, while the generic ballot has moved the Democrats way Trump’s approval has sat steady as has his strong approval numbers.  His base is with him but it is the soft voters one might wonder about.

Which leads into the biggest caveat about polling.  It is, well, polling!  Polling missed lots of Trump voters in 2016.  Since this time pollsters have tried to make adjustments but have they really?

Additionally, this is the BIGGEST caveat in the room.  When polling misses, well, okay if it misses, it tends to miss in one direction.  This does not seem to matter by pollster.  For example, in 2016, the polls were off in many battleground states for Clinton.  Likewise, in 2014 contests, many Senate polls had a built-in bias for Democrats.

This has many factors and could be due to Democrats being more likely to get through the sample.  It could be because Republicans are less likely to talk to pollsters.  But, either way, if the polls are are biased towards Democrats (and the evidence seems to suggest every poll shows Democrats in a strong position) it is systemic.

Secondly, it is true Democrats are winning on the fundraising front.  At least in individual races.  But, they are losing when it comes to the SuperPAC numbers and the national party apparatus.  For example, the Congressional Leadership Fund raised an unheralded $51 million in the second quarter and had $71 million at the start of the peak of the campaign season.  No Democratic counterpart comes close.

It should also be noted money has its limits as well.  Senators like Ben Nelson (FL) and Claire McCaskill (MO) are sitting on multi millions but can only spend it in their races.  The law of diminishing returns eventually kicks in.  But, on the other hand, SuperPACs can spend it nationally and will target key races instead of throwing $10 million into one contest.

Cillizza is right about one point though.  Money does expand the playing field.  It can also suggest party excitement.  But, then again, incumbents are already sitting on more cash than a lot of their challengers and thus focus on something else other than fundraising for their reelection.

Lastly, the reason why Democrats even are considered to have a 50/50 shot at retaking Congress is because so many Republicans have retired.  It is predominately their seats that are in danger.  Meanwhile, incumbents, as I have written before, are actually holding their own.  Thus, maybe expectations of a Democratic wave are getting ahead of themselves.  Certainly Democrats will gain seats in Congress.  But jumping on the bandwagon of a wave in an era of uncertainty with polling, the money variable going both ways and a historic realignment occurring is generally more of what partisan hacks do than serious analysts.  Cillizza used to be of the latter.  Sadly, in the era of Trump, he is now in the former.


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