There’s a lot of hand wringing going on with regards to recent polling numbers and forecasts. Many are wondering if the #bluewave is a myth, something liberals have been telling themselves to feel better but won’t come true. As they see bad polls for Democrats, some seem prone to giving up hope before the game is over.
This is premature, and there’s lots of reasons to remain optimistic. All of the data we have is mixed and points to a wide variety of realistic outcomes, from the disappointing to the incredible.
So let’s hold off on the eulogy until after we’re dead.
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To be clear, nothing’s been lost yet, but neither has anything been clinched. What’s key to note is there seems to be a disconnect in the numbers. Specifically, the polling for individual races have been muted, but studies of overall voter intent look great.
Despite some disappointments in recent weeks, the horse race numbers for specific Senate, House and Governor seats point to relatively modest Democratic pickups. This is what’d you expect in a ‘typical’ midterm election. According to these surveys, Democratic incumbents are usually favored to hold on even in red places, Democratic challengers are expected to flip most available liberal districts, and Democrats are favored to win in Midwestern states where they campaigned ineffectively two years ago.
That’s…exceedingly normal. But the macro numbers tell a more interesting story.
The generic ballot favors Democrats by 8-9 points, which should be enough to take the House. And Trump’s approval are underwater, which point to vulnerable Republicans losing a lot of closely contested seats.
But what’s unusual are the size of the swings in a lot of surveys, and how they may preview a larger Democratic win:
Women are moving strongly towards Democrats and appear to be more motivated to vote. This trend is true across the board, but especially the huge number of college educated suburban white women seem to have gone from a swing group to 20+ point blowout. Given that women vote more than men normally, a more motivated and left-leaning female turnout may make a difference.
Young voter registration and drive to show up at the polls are the highest they’ve ever been. Cynical pundits and GOP operatives try to throw water on this enthusiasm by pointing out (correctly) millennials are not going to vote at the same level Boomers do ..but that’s not the point. Voters under 35 may very well vote at double their usual level, and they support Democrats by a 2-1 margin.
Independents seem to prefer Democrats, even if it’s simply as check on Trump. Independents are also growing as registered Republicans decrease, which may be a sign the Never Trump crowd has given up on the GOP, at least for this election. A 15-20 point margin among independents can swing a lot of districts with a slightly conservative lean.
Hispanic registration and outreach have made large gains. Whether or not they show up to the polls is the big question, but this is a notoriously difficult demographic to poll, so the odds of underestimating turnout seems more likely than the opposite.
All of these numbers point to larger shifts towards Democrats than what’s being captured by the generic ballot and other polling.
Ultimately, there’s two dueling narratives, and either one could be true:
- 1) Democratic enthusiasm and new voters are greatly exaggerated, and whatever gains do exist will be largely offset by reliable GOP turnout and geographic advantages.
- 2) Current polling estimates aren’t capturing changes in voter sentiment and a leftward shift of the electorate.
So which is it? You can make a lot of money over at PredictIt if you know (or just guess right).
If the first is true, the result will probably be a slight Democratic majority in the House and a largely unchanged Senate. This will leave a lot of Trump opponents disappointed and lead to a lot of crowing from the Fox News types. But in reality, it’ll simply be a sign the normal rules of politics still apply. And as long as we at least take the House, this will be an acceptable (if underwhelming) result.
If the second is true, election night will be very exciting, and races barely on our radar today will keep pundits up late waiting to see who wins. This is especially true because a small shift puts A LOT of races in play. Democratic fundraising advantages and the very wide map the House is being contested on mean there are lots of paths out there.
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Don’t Give Up
Many worry – with justification – that Democratic enthusiasm is misplaced, or if voter suppression and even outright fraud can stop it. Some conservative trolls shout the same things with glee.
Those fears are justified, but so is optimism. We have to monitor what happens, and also recognize the good signs when we see them.
It’ll take 23 seats to flip the House. The generic ballot favors Democrats by about 8-9 points, and there are 94 GOP seats that are nine points or less Republican-leaning. If the ballot understates Democratic momentum, there are another 63 seats that favor the GOP by 10-15 points.
Obviously not all of those will be close races. Lots of factors, from demographics to fundraising to GOTV operations to weather on Election Day may have an effect. But most of those races will be competitive, and a few will be easy flips.
So let’s fight through the stress and bad headlines and misinformation for another three weeks. Don’t ignore the polls, but don’t treat them as gospel either. Vote, get others to vote, and remember to have champagne ready on November 6th.