Over the summer, Republicans enjoyed signs of significant gains in this November’s midterm elections. Generic polls, which ask voters if they are more likely to vote for the Republican or Democrat in their district, showed historic advantages for the GOP.
Across the country, Republicans led dozens of races for congressional seats and statehouses currently held by Democrats. And enthusiasm among those paying attention leaned heavily toward the minority party.
Then came the fall, and, fueled by an occasional poll showing a smaller Republican lead in generic ballot tests, the media and Democrats alike began floating the idea that perhaps the Democrats had turned the tide. Perhaps the GOP had peaked too soon. Perhaps the election would not be the bloodletting so many political observers foresaw in July and August. For sure, in this toxic political environment, Democratic candidates would love to see the trends move in their direction.
On September 1, Election Projection, which aggregates polls and pundit ratings to project electoral outcomes, had Republicans winning seven seats in the Senate, a net of 36 seats in the House, and a net 8 governorships. These are solid red wave numbers, but not enough to win either chamber of Congress. In light of the oncoming GOP wave, well-publicized before then, and the alleged Democratic resurgence since, that’s a projection Democrats could live with, right? Maybe not. I’ll tell you why in a bit, but first, let’s look at why a slight uptick in Democratic poll numbers was inevitable.
Throughout the spring and summer, Republicans nationwide were excited looking toward Election Day, energized by a large and growing GOP storm on the horizon. On the other hand, those not particularly keen on a Republican tide were more interested in Tiger’s performance or Lost’s final episode than who was winning the primaries. Closing in on Election Day, however, they’ll become more and more engaged, and, hence, there should be more non-Tea Party, non-Republican voters in pollsters’ likely voter pools. So, as the election nears, the politically less-interested will become more interested, and these folks will likely be more Democratic-leaning. All this should produce less overwhelming generic ballot deficits and more favorable prospects for Democrats. But has it?
While it is true that an ebb in Republican polling advantages soon after Labor Day moved my projections toward the Democrats, the shift was so slight that it could hardly be described as a comeback. In the House, for every poll that has hinted of Democratic gains, there has been another showing Republicans increasing their lead. In the Senate, for every race where the Democrat has seemed to pull ahead (California Senate, for example), other races (Wisconsin and West Virginia) have given Republicans unexpected pick-up opportunities. Moreover, if Democrats have been enjoying a resurgence, how has Tea-Party favorite Sharron Angle pulled ahead of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? How has Mark Kirk been able to maintain his small lead over Alexi Giannoulias in the Democratic stronghold of Illinois?
More evidence that Republicans have weathered whatever measly political shift may have materialized recently can be found in how professional handicappers have altered their perception of the battle for the House. In the last three weeks, the four pundits I use to calculate my House projections have published, collectively, 87 updated House race ratings. An astonishing 81 of them favored the GOP, meaning that, in their view, the Republican candidate in over fifty House races is more likely to win now than before this reported Democratic comeback started.
It’s nearly impossible to argue for such a change in the political winds in the face of these improving Republican prospects. And finally, as if we need more evidence, Gallup’s latest generic ballot test is nothing short of remarkable. In this poll, Gallup attempts to measure likely voters for the first time in the current election cycle. Among those likely to vote, they further divide the sample into high and low turnout models. A high turnout election favors Democrats according to Gallup, but even then Republicans lead by 13 points. If the turnout is low, the Republican advantage grows to a staggering 18 points. Nate Silver, who moved his brilliant, albeit liberal, statistical prowess at fivethirtyeight.com to the New York Times a couple months ago, puts these results into perspective:
Those are absolutely terrifying numbers for Democrats. Although it’s not completely straightforward to translate the generic ballot into actual votes, were Democrats to lose the House popular vote by anything resembling that margin, their losses could be catastrophic. According to one formula that models turnover in the House based on the Gallup likely voter model specifically, a 13-point lead for the GOP would translate into a gain of 71 (!) seats — and an 18-point lead, a gain of 86 (!!) seats.
All this comes while the media and the Democrats are shouting “comeback!”
To the contrary, the closer we get to the election, the more persistent the Republican advantage appears to be. Despite increased voter interest across the board which may have fueled a very mini, very short-lived Democratic rebound, the electorate seems more resolute than ever in casting their lot with Republicans. Now, with just over three weeks remaining until voters go to the polls, nothing short of an earth-shattering course-changing October surprise will weaken the major GOP hurricane bearing down on the political landscape.
When it hits on November 2, Democrats in vast numbers will be washed away in its wake.