As we enter the final fortnight of the midterms, the traditional Backpedaling of Prognosticators has well and truly begun. Politico might have gotten a head start on it over the weekend, but today both the Associated Press and the Washington Post play catch-up. Analysts from both outlets cast significant doubt on the existence of a “blue wave” despite months of media hype and Democratic expectations.
First up — the AP, which scoffs at proposed Democratic gains in the Senate, and wonders about the new majority in the House:
In the closing stretch of the 2018 campaign, the question is no longer the size of the Democratic wave. It’s whether there will be a wave at all.
Top operatives in both political parties concede that Democrats’ narrow path to the Senate majority has essentially disappeared, a casualty of surging Republican enthusiasm across GOP strongholds. At the same time, leading Democrats now fear the battle for the House majority will be decided by just a handful of seats. …
There are signs that the Democrats’ position in the expanding House battlefield may actually be improving. Yet Republican candidates locked in tight races from New York to Nevada find themselves in stronger-than-expected positions because of a bump in President Donald Trump’s popularity, the aftermath of a divisive Supreme Court fight and the sudden focus on a caravan of Latin American immigrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border.
Democrats say they never assumed it would be easy.
Au contraire — Democrats not only said it would be easy, thanks to Donald Trump’s massive unpopularity, they said it would be yuuuuge. The blue wave was supposed to provide them a mandate for everything from Medicare for All to Trump’s impeachment. Their massive victory would provide evidence that the GOP had collapsed into extremism and that their turn toward the hard left represented mainstream America.
Suddenly, though, Democrats find themselves in a fight. Analysis from the Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany suggests it’s precisely because Trump isn’t as unpopular as they first thought, and that voters have taken them up on making it a referendum on the president:
Republicans are starting to point to evidence — and some fresh numbers — that their chances of retaining the House majority when voters go the polls in 13 days may have slightly improved. And even some Democrats agree. …
The tight numbers coincide with Trump’s approval rating among registered voters reaching an all-time high of 47 percent for his presidency.
Why that matters: The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter notes that Trump’s current approval ratings pretty much mirror the 2016 vote.
Walter suggests a different song to encapsulate the moment: The Talking Head’s “Same As It Ever Was.” For example, the president’s white, non-college educated, mostly male supporters now give him a 65 percent approval rating, according to the WSJ/NBC numbers, compared to 64 percent of the 2016 vote. Today, white college voters give Trump a 38 percent approval rating; and in 2016, they gave him 38 percent of the vote.
Under those conditions, Republicans held the House in 2016 with a 23-seat majority. Midterm turnout models differ from presidential cycles, of course, but normally that has benefited the GOP more than Democrats. Media outlets mainly missed Trump’s ability to energize loosely-engaged voters in 2016, and they may be missing it again in 2018 … or maybe just belatedly catching up to it.
On the other hand, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar advises everyone not to get too carried away with the backpedal:
The House outlook is still looking awfully rosy for Democrats, who are benefiting from a suburban wave throughout the country. That hasn’t changed much at all since the polarizing Kavanaugh hearings; if anything, it benefited the Democratic challengers in swing districts. Democrats need to net 23 seats, and are already close to putting away around 16 GOP-held ones, including five held by battle-tested members of Congress. And with 21 of the 29 Toss-Up seats (according to The Cook Political Report’s ratings) being fought in the Trump-skeptical suburbs, it’s awfully hard to see how Republicans protect their increasingly tenuous majority.
The other factor favoring House Democrats is the sheer number of potentially competitive races on the map, thanks to sky-high liberal enthusiasm across the country. Even in solidly Republican districts, an apathetic GOP campaign combined with record Democratic engagement could put unlikely races in play. It’s why Cook rates a whopping 98 Republican seats as potentially competitive, including contests in Alaska, Montana, and Oklahoma. Add just a couple of upsets to the list of Democratic pickups, and it would put them over the top.
That said, the GOP’s ability to rally its base with the reemergence of culturally polarizing issues will stunt the magnitude of Democratic gains. There are still plenty of GOP-friendly suburban seats where Democrats are rallying, but the blue-collar Trump districts are looking tougher to crack. Vulnerable members such as Reps. Mike Bost of Illinois, Andy Barr of Kentucky, and even John Faso of New York are looking in much better position because of Trump’s recent political rebound.
Not only there, but also in Minnesota. Democrats hope to pick up two suburban seats from Erik Paulsen and Jason Lewis, but they’re certain to lose Rick Nolan’s MN-08 seat and likely to lose the open MN-01 seat too, thanks to Trump’s resurgence and resonance in rural-exurban Minnesota. They might lose MN-07 too even with Collin Peterson running for re-election, as Trump won that district by 32 points two years ago with Peterson hanging on by five points back then.
Still, Democrats do have more advantages in the House races. It’s more likely that they’ll emerge with a narrow majority than Republicans holding onto theirs, but the latter seems more likely than it did two months ago. In no way will this result in a mandate in either direction, but either result might end up making it impossible to move legislation for the next two years.