April 19, 2018
Ask anyone who has occasion to make note of a data point from a political survey cited in a news article or a website and they’ll likely acknowledge that the particular data point is a snap shot.
It’s one thing to understand this intellectually, but another thing to accept this in practice.
Case in point, Democrats’ imminent takeover of the US House in this year’s midterm elections. That’s what all the surveys have indicated and what the narrative has been in the media, so we can take a Democrat being elected speaker of the House to the bank, right?
Democrats taking control of the House during the midterms is more likely to occur than not. However, the shift to Democrat control of the House has little to do with these recent data points being reported, almost nothing to do with the media banter, and more to do with other factors.
We’ll address the “other” actual relevant factors momentarily. The real point here is to acknowledge the fluidity of opinion and ways in which events and new stories shape opinions that evolve and change constantly. Translation: there’s at best a loose correlation between voting expectations revealed in a survey (a “generic ballot”) and votes actually cast in November.
Based on the RealClear Politics (RCP) average for the generic ballot in January the generic Democrat was +13 (49% to 36%) over the generic Republican. Fast forward to mid-April and the generic Democrat’s lead, based on the RCP average, has shrunk to within 6 points, 46% to 39%. Referencing the latest ABC News/Washington Post survey as of Tuesday, April 17th, the generic Democrat’s lead is only 4 points (47% to 43%) from a survey of 865 registered voters nationally.
One potential factor contributing to this closing in the generic ballot could be gleaned from another recent survey by April 6-9, 2018) Quinnipiac University that fielded from April 6th – 9th among 1,181 registered voters nationally.
The Quinnipiac Poll has asking on an ongoing basis who respondents believe is responsible for the current state of the economy, former President Obama or President Trump.
In January, about half (49%) of all voters nationally believed President Obama was more responsible for the state of the economy compared with 40% calling this President Trump’s economy. Since January, voters have increasingly expressed that President Trump is responsible for the economy. In fact, in Quinnipiac’s latest survey, President Trump is seen as responsible for the economy – an economy 60% describe as “excellent/good” – by a 20-point advantage over President Obama. This view accounts for a majority (54%) of all voters. Additionally, almost half (46%) of Democrats see President Trump as responsible for the economy.
Even with all that said, as we sit here in April, the smart money is still with Democrats taking control of the House in November. Still, a scenario where Democrats take the House does NOT stem from what has become a tenuous lead in the generic ballot as of April 2018.
The factors that do make for what is likely a Democrat takeover in the House include: history intensity among base voters, and the field of candidates.
History is the most significant factor in the Democrat’s favor. Since the Civil War, the president’s party has lost, on average, 32 seats in the House and the Democrats need 23.
Couple this historical trend with the preference of voters to have a check and balance in government vs. one-party control. The most recent NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll (April 8-11, 2018) aptly demonstrates this point, as a plurality (40%) of registered voters indicates their vote for Congress amounts to needing more Democrats to be a check and balance to the President and Republicans compared with 28% who say their vote means there’s a need for more Republicans to help the President pass his agenda.
Q: Will your vote for Congress in November 2018 be a vote to send a message that we need . . .
It is noteworthy that nearly 1-in-10 (9%) Republicans are intending to send a message with their vote of needing a check/balance on the President; calling all ‘Never Trumpers.’
This is the trickiest of the factors because the reference to intensity being a contributing factor is but a snapshot in time; meaning voters’ level of intensity will go up and down. Intensity of vote has also never been strongly correlated with actual voter turnout. But it’s kind of like throwing a first pitch strike in baseball in which case the batting average for a Major League hitter drops some 20% with a count of 0-1 vs. a 1-0 count, i.e. having the intensity of your voters doesn’t mean everything, but you’d rather have it than not.
According to the most recent NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll (900 US adults April 8-11, 2018), two-thirds (66%) of Democrats indicate they have a high interest in the elections (+6 from March) compared with 49% of Republicans (-5 from March).
The intensity of a party’s base voters is a creature comfort for partisans, but unless it can be translated into voter turnout, it’s needless carbs for the body politic.
The 2018 midterm elections are shaping up to include the largest field of Democrat candidates running for the House in decades. As of today, 55 House incumbents are not running for re-election. Of those 55 incumbents stepping out, 38 are Republicans. Running in a House seat previously held by a Republican can make for an entirely different proposition than actually running against a Republican incumbent.
In light of Speaker Ryan’s recent announcement that he will not be running for re-election this year, it is interesting to note how the political handicappers at the Cook Political Report assess a couple of the races for what would otherwise be safe Republican seats:
There’s a better than good chance Democrats take over the House in November. However, the likelihood Democrats do take the House stems more from the factors illustrated above than anything to do with a Democrat edge in the generic ballot.
The generic ballot is by nature a temperature check and not capable of accounting for the dynamics of specific congressional districts around the country. This is especially true with respect to how far out from the elections we are as well. It is a useful, rough metric illustrating a political mood much more so than a reflection of votes to be cast.