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Opinion: A Midterm Environment Is Beginning to Take Shape, but Beware the Late Decider

Don’t bet on only political conventional wisdom in November

Will voters with an unfavorable view of both parties make a late call again this year? At this point, David Winston writes, the answer is unknown. (Meredith Dake-O'Connor/CQ Roll Call staff photo)
Will voters with an unfavorable view of both parties make a late call again this year? At this point, David Winston writes, the answer is unknown. (Meredith Dake-O'Connor/CQ Roll Call staff photo)

It’s June, five months out from the fall elections, and the midterm speculation has gone from a simmer to a slow boil. Over the past year, thanks to an expanding body of survey research, the political conventional wisdom has evolved from wishful thinking (the blue wave is inevitable) to educated guessing (Democrats have an advantage based on past elections) to what now seems to be cautious agreement: The battle for control of Congress has become a real horse race.

Skeptics argue that the presidential polls in 2016 got it wrong, and so it would be foolish to put too much stock in surveys showing Republicans gaining on what had been a huge Democrat advantage only a few months ago. While there were some problems with individual poll results in the last presidential election, especially at the state level, most national poll results in general were within the margin of error.

Because late deciders broke so heavily for Trump in the final days of the campaign, those believing Clinton was all but elected (most of Washington) forgot that a poll’s margin of error can go either way. For example, a margin of error of plus or minus 3 points means the range could be 6 points. If Hillary Clinton was leading in a poll by 2 points, that meant she could’ve actually been up 5 points or behind by 1 point.

Too many people saw her lead going into the last days, listened to media chatter that Trump couldn’t possibly win and assumed, prematurely as it turns out, that her victory was a sure thing.

Seeing red

It’s certainly true that individual polls can be wrong but trend lines generally aren’t. And the trend in this year’s congressional election — a race once thought to be a shoo-in for Democrats — has been moving toward the GOP.

Our recent Winning the Issues survey (May 31-June 1) shows the Democrats with a narrow 3-point advantage in the generic ballot, 45 percent to 42 percent. The RealClear Politics average is at +3.2 points for Democrats at the moment. I’ve written before that it’s too soon to “bet the ranch” on the midterms, and it still is. But we can now say that the Democrats’ large advantage last fall seems to be evaporating.

For those leery of polls, another way to look at how the race for Congress is shaping up is to examine the broader strategic setting at play and the variables that may still affect the fall outcome.

While any predictions about the midterms, even five months out, is risky business, there are a few key observations we can make now. First, it is becoming increasingly evident that the pace of economic growth is beginning to quicken. The unemployment rate is remarkably low, especially for minorities; wages are ticking up; and voters are growing more bullish on the direction of the economy.

For many Americans, the jury is still out on the tax law, but there is still plenty of time for Republicans to make their case. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is a solid product that offers compelling evidence of sound economic management and positive results. Combined with regulatory reform, the GOP tax policies are spurring a strong economy that is a favorable wind at the party’s back.

Second, Republican voters are becoming more engaged.

The latest Winning the Issues survey put the likelihood of conservative Republicans to vote at 8.31 (on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being not voting at all, and 9 being absolutely voting). This score put them on par with liberal Democrats (8.30). All Republicans were at 8.23; all Democrats at 8.05.

For all practical purposes, the so-called enthusiasm gap between the party bases has disappeared.

Third, today’s environment is different from anything we’ve seen before. Despite the media’s penchant for comparing this year to 2006, back then our New Models survey (May 20-21, 2006) showed that voters gave the Democrats a 4-point and 7-point edge as the party they believed would best deliver on the economy and jobs, respectively.

Today, according to the Winning the Issues survey, Republicans have the advantage.

Voters have more confidence in Republicans than Democrats to handle the economy (47 percent to 38 percent), jobs (45 percent to 38 percent), and taxes (43 percent to 39 percent). Our survey also showed that voters believe the Republican Party’s economic theories and policies have been more successful (40 percent to 36 percent). This time around, it is the GOP who has the stronger economic message.

Despite this improving strategic setting for Republicans, there is a lot of time left on the clock. There are still five more releases of unemployment data to come. The president’s trade policy could yet depress some voters in farm states, gas prices could continue to rise, and diplomacy with North Korea could implode.

In July, we’ll find out if second-quarter gross domestic product growth shows a continuing strong economy or not. What the twists and turns of the Mueller and the Justice Department inspector general’s investigations will do to the political environment is anybody’s guess.

And finally, what about the voters themselves? The pundits missed the late movement in the polls in 2016. Undecided voters in Rust Belt states broke for Donald Trump overwhelmingly in the last weeks of the election.

Watch: What You Need to Know About Voter Registration and Turnout This Midterm Season

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More questions

Republican and Democratic brands are both negative this time around, with one out of four voters having an unfavorable view of both parties. This is not unlike the 2016 presidential candidates’ high unfavorables, which brings up an important question.

How will these voters make their decision this fall? Will they make a late call again and what will drive that decision? At this point, we don’t know the answer.

But there are other voter groups beyond late deciders that come into play when looking ahead strategically. Will independent women or suburban voters tip control of Congress? Will young and minority voters turn out in larger numbers than generally expected in midterm elections? We don’t know that either — not yet.

This uncertainty leads to a more macro question. Does the broader strategic setting — the growing economy, the hardening partisan divide, the unique political environment created by this president — favor one party’s strategy over the other’s?

In truth, campaign strategies are fragile things easily overwhelmed by events. They are created with a kind of “use by” date that dictates if circumstances change, so must the campaign’s strategic thinking.

So here we are, five months to a crucial election, which can be a blink of an eye or a seeming eternity depending on a political campaign’s fortunes. Given the variables at play, both parties should be ready to react to events, shift gears, and reorient their message if necessary.

Winston Churchill, a master strategist, put it this way: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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