I think Gary Peters will end up holding on here, just like I think Lindsey Graham will end up holding on in South Carolina despite his opponent setting mind-bending fundraising records.
But before we get to the reasons, let’s pause a moment to savor the first poll in a looong time showing a Republican at any level overperforming. John James overperformed a bit in 2018 too when he challenged Debbie Stabenow for Senate. There’s every reason to believe he’s made a real race of it this year in Michigan despite everything in the political world working against him.
A new NYT poll of the state has him within one thin point of Peters.
In Michigan, Senator Gary Peters, a Democrat, faces a surprisingly strong challenge from John James, a graduate of West Point who is considered one of the Republicans’ top recruits of the cycle. Mr. Peters leads by just one percentage point, 43 percent to 42 percent, among likely voters, a significant narrowing of the race since a Times/Siena survey in June that found Mr. Peters leading, 41-31.
The relatively high number of undecided voters reflects the relatively low profile of the two candidates. Around 20 percent of voters do not have an opinion on either of them. Mr. James’s favorability ratings have increased to 45 percent favorable versus 35 percent unfavorable, up from 36 percent favorable and 29 percent unfavorable in the June survey. Part of Mr. Peters’s weakness is that he has thus far failed to match Mr. Biden’s tallies among nonwhite voters, who disproportionately remain undecided. It remains to be seen whether Mr. James, who is Black, will ultimately make significant inroads among these voters.
At a moment when Democrats are clobbering Republicans in fundraising, James brought in the same amount last quarter as Peters did — $14 million, an impressive sum. Thanks to their big money advantage, Democrats are playing offense across nearly every battleground right now, with even some red states like South Carolina being pushed into the “toss-up” column. The one exception where they’re playing defense: Michigan, thanks to John James.
In a sign of the competitive race, the super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is pumping $5.4 million into ad spending in Michigan this week alone to help bolster Peters, the memo authored by James’ campaign also revealed…
Spending in the Michigan Senate race is expected to top $100 million and become the most expensive contest in Michigan’s history, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. About 40 outside groups have already spent $50 million in ads in Michigan. The leading pro-Peters outside group is the Schumer-backed Senate Majority PAC at $13 million. And the biggest pro-James outside spender is the Senate Leadership Fund, the Senate GOP’s counterpart, that has spent $9 million so far.
If Schumer dumping truckloads of money into Michigan to keep Peters afloat doesn’t convince you that James is for real, note that the last poll of this race before today had James down just three points. All summer long, Peters led comfortably in eight- or nine-point range. Then, near the end of August, his polling started to slip. Today he leads by an average of 4.9, although as I say, the two most recent polls are even tighter than that.
So why do I think Peters will pull it out, apart from my general propensity towards eeyorism? Three reasons.
1. James’s polling is pretty anemic. The reason the race has tightened isn’t because he’s gaining ground, it’s because some voters are moving from the Peters column to undecided. *Maybe* they’re en route to switching to James, which would be great. But the Republican has actually lost a bit of ground himself since Peters’s slide began, dipping from 44.3 percent in the RCP average in late August to 43.0 today. With one exception, James hasn’t been above 44 percent in any survey since early September. (The one exception, which had him at 47 percent, came a few weeks ago from Trafalgar. Trafalgar famously called Michigan correctly for Trump four years ago but they’ve had a much stronger lean towards Republicans in all of their polling this year than the rest of the industry has had.) Peters, by contrast, has topped 50 percent multiple times. Normally when candidate A’s ceiling is five or six points higher than candidate B’s, candidate A is going to win.
2. Look closely in the excerpt up top at who the undecideds in the Peters/James race are. They’re nonwhite voters, a group that leans strongly Democratic. Check the crosstabs and you’ll find that another very liberal group, adults aged 18-29, also includes a large share of undecideds (21 percent). Is it possible that those groups will tilt towards James? Sure. Is it likely given that they’re predisposed to voting Democratic? No. Chances are they’ll come home to Peters in the end.
3. Like Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Peters is lucky enough to have a presidential candidate at the top of the ballot who’s likely to win his state and drag him over the finish line in so doing. Biden leads Trump here by eight points, 48/40. How’s he doing it? By flipping a small but meaningful number of Michigan voters who were pro-Trump — or anti-Clinton, we should probably say — in 2016.
Biden’s winning back the Obama/Trump crossovers and third-party voters who combined to hand the state to POTUS four years ago, and he’s also likely to turn out enough people who sat out the 2016 election that he’ll net a few more votes that way. Add all of that up and it’s another comfortable-ish margin for him in Michigan, where he’s led by eight points or better in five of the last six polls. (In the sixth poll, he led by six.) His support isn’t a pure anti-Trump vote either:
Biden's favorable/unfavorable ratings in NYT polls… Michigan: 54/42… Wisconsin: 55/42…. This isn't a lesser of two evils vote. Voters actually like Biden. HUGE difference with 2016. https://t.co/i5T7qOczWN
— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) October 12, 2020
Peters has a well-liked, likely-to-win candidate on his side of the ballot to mobilize Democratic turnout. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign has cut ad spending lately in Michigan, a sign that they might be giving up on the state as a bad bet relative to battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Arizona. If Trump throws in the towel in MI, some Republicans who might otherwise have turned out to vote for him — and James — won’t bother. Where does James make up those votes?
Will McConnell go all-in there on outside spending in hopes of boosting the Republican? There’s a nonzero chance next month that we end up with a Biden presidency and the Senate leaning 50/49 GOP, with the James/Peters race to decide whether Democrats control the entirety of government or whether Republicans get to roadblock the left’s agenda for the next two years.
I’ll leave you with this thought from Nate Silver about what today’s NYT data says about the likelihood of another big miss by pollsters on Trump’s chances.
One other thing too: The fact that Biden's lead seems to stem from persuasion rather than turnout might make it a bit more robust to polling error. You're not a shy Trump voter if you tell a pollster that you voted for Trump in 2016 but are voting Biden this time.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) October 12, 2020