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We’re now a year away from the 2018 congressional midterm elections. The media and most pundits are convinced the midterms will be good news for Democrats because of President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings. A fairer reading of the data is more mixed: Republicans have reason to be wary, but they are not yet looking at the sort of “wave” election that sweeps one party out of office with massive losses.
Trump’s low approval ratings (38.8 percent on the RealClearPolitics polling average) are troublesome from a Republican perspective. As has been widely reported, they are the lowest of any U.S. president’s at this stage of his presidency in decades. Trump’s approval ratings are not lower, though, than they were when he won the presidency. He won because many Republicans or independents disliked him, but still preferred him to Hillary Clinton, whom they also disliked. Focusing on Trump’s approval alone hides the large number of loyal Republican voters who will still vote for their party in other contests.
The “generic ballot” polling question helps to unmask these voters’ intentions. That question asks if a person favors a Democrat or a Republican for Congress. It has its limitations, most importantly the fact that incumbents often have personal loyalty built up over years in office that allows them to do better than their party normally would. It is, however, a fair indicator of the general direction of public sentiment.
Democrats are currently well ahead in the generic ballot. The RealClearPolitics average shows them with a 10-point lead, although individual polls show them with anything from a 15- to a 3-point advantage. At face value this looks horrific for Republicans. But as with the Trump approval ratings, there is more here than meets the eye.
Three facts make the generic ballot less scary for Republicans than one might think. First, the incumbency factor noted above. Incumbent officeholders often run ahead of party expectations, and so far most House Republicans in potentially shaky seats are staying put. The only Senate Republicans to announce their retirements so far are Bob Corker of Tennessee, a state likely to elect a Republican in any event, and Jeff Flake of Arizona, where Flake was much more unpopular than his party as a whole. Unless more Republicans in swing seats step down in the coming months, the incumbency factor should favor the GOP.
Political geography makes the generic ballot less scary, too. As the Clinton campaign discovered to its horror, Democrats are increasingly found in small clusters of the country, such as in California and New York. Winning large margins in those states and similar areas helps in national polls, but not in the regional elections elsewhere that actually decide who wins office. The average House seat is much more Republican-trending than that national average of all votes. This means that Democrats need to win the national vote by something close to 8 percent to have a shot at carrying the House. Their current 10 percent generic ballot margin would therefore predict they would have only a slim majority after next year’s elections.
Finally, Republicans tend to do better in generic ballot tests the closer one gets to Election Day. This is partly because of advertising: Media reports tend to slant Democratic, but television advertising provides voters with more GOP-leaning information. Pollsters also start to switch from a “registered voter” model to a “likely voter” approach. The polling results of likely voter models typically show increased Republican support. Today’s 10 percent Democratic lead, therefore, probably translates to more like a 6 to 8 percent lead among likely voters. If replicated on Election Day, that would mean the GOP takes some losses but still retains control of Congress.
The next six months will be crucial for Republican hopes. If they do some things that respond to popular demands (and events don’t interfere), they could be looking at improved poll ratings that would halt current talk of Democratic waves. Fail to do that, and the winter could be quite gloomy for Republicans on Capitol Hill.