The reports of the demise of Republican control of the House due to Donald Trump turn out to be… greatly exaggerated. In fact, the reports of those reports seem exaggerated, too. Until Politico’s Rachel Bade wrote that House Democrats’ hope of winning control of the lower chamber have faded in recent days, few probably knew of their existence in the first place:
House Republicans spent all summer sweating that Donald Trump’s chaotic campaign would cost them dearly in November, and maybe even open a path for Democrats to seize control of the chamber. But five weeks before Election Day, those fears have largely subsided: Republicans are still pegged to lose seats, but top party strategists are increasingly bullish that a cascade of defeats isn’t at hand.
There’s still time for that to change, but the telltale signs of a wave election typically surface by this point in the cycle, and it hasn’t happened yet. The GOP’s internal polling shows not one of their incumbents running behind, Republicans claim, and the generic congressional ballot — a critical early indicator of the election outcome — has inched closer to even after trending in Democrats’ favor.
“We’re in a much stronger position than anybody thought [we’d be],” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who boasted last week that Democrats have gone from “cocky” to “nervous” about their House prospects. “Sit down with [Democratic] leadership and compare their notes from a month ago to today: I think you’ll see a less optimistic attitude than you saw a month ago.”
The newfound optimism could vanish if Trump goes into a freefall in the final weeks of the campaign; his poor performance over the past week isn’t reflected in the GOP’s private House polling, and Democrats say Republicans are getting ahead of themselves.
Who’s getting ahead of themselves? Republicans have a 59-seat majority in the House at the moment. Democrats would have to win 30 seats back from the GOP to get to 218 seats and the majority, a move that would require a significant wave election — and there is no indication of any wave at all.
Bade notes that previous waves in 2006 and 2010 manifested themselves weeks and even months ahead of the election in generic-ballot polling. What’s that been like this time around? The only remarkable thing about the generic ballot polling results this time around is their unremarkability. Here’s the RCP average since Trump clinched the nomination in May:
The current average is D+3.6. The widest lead in the aggregate was D+5 in late August and early September. The biggest lead that Democrats have had in any one poll in this entire period is eight points in a Marist poll in early August, and their latest iteration cut that in half. That’s nothing like the polling in 2006, when Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House.
Bear in mind, too, that the generic ballot has an inherent tilt toward Democrats. A lead of 3.6 points is not a harbinger of a good election season; it signals a status quo. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight weights these out and comes up with a Democratic edge of 2.6 points instead — perhaps a bit of an advantage, but not the kind that flips almost three dozen House seats.
Trump is clearly not having a big impact down-ballot, which was Democrats’ only hope of being competitive in the House. Perhaps they need to focus more on replacing their calcified leadership than fantasize about Trump.