Who Takes the House: Feelings vs. the Polls

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About that Blue Wave…

Ed Morrissey wonders if it’s the “Kavanaugh Effect,” but in the latest poll Debbie Stabenow’s lead has dropped 16 points from last month, putting her “safe” seat perhaps within reach of GOP challenger John James. Ed reminds us that RealClearPolitics wrote just a few weeks ago that “there is little evidence that [James] poses a threat to Debbie Stabenow,” but clearly that’s old news. He goes on to say that Stabenow’s near-collapse might represent “an across-the-board collapse for Democrats in Michigan.”


Stabenow of course holds a Senate seat. While it would be nice — great, even — for the GOP to knock out Stabenow, the outcome of who will control the Senate next year isn’t much in doubt.

Nevertheless, this does have me thinking about the House side of things.

The numbers all say that the Dems take the House with a slender majority, and they’ve said that to varying degrees for months now. But it just doesn’t feel that way. A booming economy, wage growth, tax cuts… are American voters really willing to risk all that by giving the House to a party which promises to undo those things?

Maybe the Dems are running better candidates in the competitive districts this year. Maybe people prefer divided government. Maybe suburban women really are fed up with Trump, even after Kavanaugh. Maybe the country has just lost its freaking mind.

Anyway, I let my heart get in the way of my judgement in 2012, and allowed myself to really believe that the country would never reelect a failure like Barack Obama. I was so wrong, and it blinded me to Trump’s chances in 2016. I swung too far towards feelings in 2012, and too far towards the polls in 2016.

So I know what the numbers say, but I also know how this election feels.

Am I allowing my personal pendulum swing back too far in the 2012 direction, or is November 6, 2018, going to come as a sweet shock like November 8, 2016, did?


Something I stumbled across while I was writing the first half of this column might hold the answer. Nate Silver’s latest FiveThirtyEight report is headlined, “Trump’s Approval Rating Is Up. Republican House Chances Are Down. Does That Make Any Sense?”

Not on the face of it, surely — but maybe we can make some sense of it.

Silver asks, “So, what gives?” and goes on to explain:

Republicans are doing about as well — or as badly — as you might expect given the long history of the president’s party performing poorly at the midterms and that Trump is at least somewhat unpopular.

In fact, let’s take Trump entirely out of the equation for a moment. On average in midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party has experienced a popular vote swing of 7.3 percentage points against it, relative to how it did in the House popular vote in the presidential year two years earlier. Republicans won the House popular vote by only 1.1 percentage points in 2016, for example, so if you knew nothing else other than that a Republican was president, you’d expect them to lose the popular vote by 6.2 percentage points this year. That’s only 2 or 3 percentage points better than their 8- or 9- point deficit on the generic ballot and in our forecast of the House popular vote this year.1

That last sentence might be the tell we’ve been looking for.

All things being equal, the Democrats typically need a 5- or 6-point advantage in the popular vote to win Congress. That’s because they run up the tally (by means both fair and foul) in their safe urban enclaves, while GOP victories even in safe districts tend to be more closely won. Kind of like Hillary Clinton “winning” the popular vote on ramped up numbers in California, but losing the Electoral College in close races in PA, MI, WI.


And what happened when you take the Dems’ “8- or 9- point deficit on the generic ballot” and subtract the “2 or 3 percentage points” Silver mentioned above?

You get something very close to the 5- or 6-point advantage I was just reminding you about.

So numbers versus feelings… it’s just too close to know which one to trust.


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