WaPo: Dems' midterm lead still slipping away

Will Democrats ride a blue wave in November, or … just get the blues? Assumptions have run high that Nancy Pelosi & Co will have both history and an unpopular president on their side, generating enough momentum to swamp out Republicans and reclaim control of the House. Paul Ryan’s retirement, and more than two dozen others in the House Republican caucus, seems to indicate an acknowledgment of a coming Democratic tsunami.

Don’t tell American voters that, however. A new poll from ABC and the Washington Post puts the two parties close to a virtual dead head in the generic congressional ballot:

With the Republicans’ House majority at risk, 47 percent of registered voters say they prefer the Democratic candidate in their district, while 43 percent favor the Republican. That four-point margin compares with a 12-point advantage Democrats held in January. Among a broader group of voting-age adults, the Democrats’ margin is 10 points, 50 percent to 40 percent. …

Democrats hold an advantage ahead of the midterm elections, but a Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that edge has narrowed since January, a signal to party leaders and strategists that they could be premature in anticipating a huge wave of victories in November.

The poll finds that the gap between support for Democratic vs. Republican House candidates dropped by more than half since the beginning of the year. At the same time, there has been a slight increase in President Trump’s approval rating, although it remains low. Measures of partisan enthusiasm paint a more mixed picture of the electorate in comparison to signs of Democratic intensity displayed in many recent special elections.

The predictive nature of special elections is still a hot matter for debate. In 2017, most special elections were won by Republicans, so it didn’t make much difference in national calculations, but Democrats won a couple of long shots in 2018, making the question more acute. The problem with special elections as bellwethers is that turnout is lower and more influenced by large sums of money and media attention. That influence is easy to apply when only one election is going on at a time. When over 470 occur at the same appointed time, outside influences tend to wane more than they wax.

One key indicator is voter passion. Which side is more likely to turn up at the voting booth? In this poll, anyway, the answer isn’t good for Democrats:

The Post-ABC poll finds parity in stated voting intentions. Among registered voters, 68 percent of both Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning registered voters say they are certain they will vote. This contrasts with Post-ABC polling ahead of the 2010 and 2014 midterm cycles, when Republicans averaged a double-digit advantage in intentions to vote and Democrats suffered major losses in both years.

It’s early yet, so those numbers could change. In fact, they have changed over time, but not in the manner Democrats hope. Republicans (and independents) have become more enthusiastic about voting in the midterms, while Democratic passion has plateaued since last November. The la Résistance posturing has apparently reached its limit, but it might be helping push their opponents into caring more about the midterm outcome.

A four-point margin will not be enough to swing the House back to Pelosi. Thanks to the limitations of polling and the geography involved, a four-point Democratic lead in the generic poll is predictive of basically a push, a return to the status quo with only a net exchange of a handful of seats. Of course, the Washington Post isn’t the only pollster with a generic congressional ballot question in their series, but the RealClearPolitics average shows the same kind of erosion across all pollsters:

Reuters/Ipsos has the gap at D+10, and Economist/YouGov has it at D+8. Quinnipiac, whose polls usually don’t look all that great for the GOP, has it at D+3 and Rasmussen ad D+5. The overall RCP average is 6.2 points, which is less than half of the 13-point lead in the aggregate averaging seen at the end of 2017.

There’s more than six months to go to the election, and lots can change between then and now. But the fact that Trump’s job approval — while still underwater — has climbed steadily all year suggests that the wind whipping a presumed blue wave may be much weaker than Democrats had supposed.