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Analysis: The House Blue Wave Is Alive and Well

In the generic ballot and presidential approval numbers, fundamentals remain unchanged

Democrats may be predicting a blue wave, but surveys show many independents are still up for grabs and Republicans could yet win that battle of ideas, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats may be predicting a blue wave, but surveys show many independents are still up for grabs and Republicans could yet win that battle of ideas, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For the last couple of months, I’ve heard from many quarters that the “blue wave” has dissipated. Meh. 

Advocates of that view usually point to the RealClearPolitics generic ballot average or Donald Trump’s job approval ratings, which suggest the president’s popularity has risen and the Democratic House advantage fallen.

An April 16 Washington Post article was headlined “Poll: Democrats’ advantage in midterm election support is shrinking.”

The National Review went much further in a May 22 piece, hyping a laughable Reuters poll that found the GOP with an advantage in the generic ballot.

“The dramatic shift is bad news for Democrats, who were a full ten points on the generic ballot as recently as the end of April. If the trend holds, their hopes of regaining control of Congress atop a blue wave in November could be dashed,” the writer observed. 

Vox had a bevy of journalists, academics and analysts warning in a June 7 story that the blue wave was in trouble. 

Less surprising is that the day after the June 5 primaries, the Republican National Committee sent out an email cherry-picking media tweets and comments (even from media organizations not friendly to Trump) that suggested the California results demonstrated Democratic enthusiasm was exaggerated and the Democratic wave didn’t exist.

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Keeping the edge

In fact, there is an abundance of evidence that Democratic House prospects are as good as they have been for months and the House is still very likely to flip.

Often, a healthy dose of common sense is more useful than a single misleading public opinion survey. Less than two months ago, I wrote “It seems very unlikely that there has been a fundamental shift in sentiment (in the generic ballot) among registered voters,” and “If I were you, I’d wait for the next round of generic ballot tests from the major pollsters before getting too excited about the most recent [Washington Post-ABC News] generic ballot result,” which showed a dramatically narrower 4-point Democratic advantage.

Two months earlier, on Feb. 12, my column — “The Generic is Falling! The Generic is Falling!” — had expressed skepticism that things had changed much and estimated that “the generic ballot probably now sits in the mid-single digits, in the 5- to 8-point range,” which I thought put the fall campaign on a trajectory toward Democratic control of the House.

Well, the newest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has the Democrats with a 10-point advantage in the generic ballot, Fox News has it at 9 points and Quinnipiac at 7 points — all very reasonable numbers and all generally consistent with my view that Democrats have a clear and consistent advantage in the generic somewhere in the mid- to upper-single digits.

Poll truths

Skeptics of this assessment might point to the president’s job approval in the NBC/Journal survey, asking how the survey’s generic ballot favoring Democrats could inch up from an advantage of 7 points to 10 points while Trump’s job approval increased to 44 percent (from 39 percent in April).

The answer is easy.

First, the NBC/Journal’s generic ballot has been remarkably stable for months. The percentage of respondents who want a Democratic-controlled Congress has fluctuated between 47 percent and 50 percent in multiple surveys since April 2017.

So, the survey’s generic ballot hasn’t really “moved” at all. That makes sense, given how starkly the partisan battle lines have been drawn for months.

Key Democratic and swing groups — including younger voters, college-educated whites and suburban voters — continue to look energized and prepared to deliver a message to the White House.

Just as important, the NBC/Journal poll found many voters from key voting groups would be more likely to support a candidate for Congress who opposes Trump and much of his agenda.

Second, Trump has gotten good news recently, both on the economy and from North Korea, and that could easily explain his improved job approval numbers. But even this assessment must be tentative.

The Trump approval numbers have bounced around for the past six months in NBC/Journal polling — 44 percent in June, 39 percent in April, 43 percent in March and 39 percent in January — so it is hard to know exactly where the public is now on the president’s performance.

The Trump factor

But even if voters are giving Trump some credit for the economy and North Korea, they could still prefer a Democratic Congress next year.

After all, there has also been plenty of troubling news from the White House, including Trump’s disturbing attack on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his tweets about the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the administration’s trade and tariffs policies, and the president’s divisive comments on cultural issues and immigration, to name just a few.

Most voters critical of Trump and his agenda will find plenty of reasons to continue to dislike him and to promise to vote Democratic in the fall.

Of course, given the president’s unpredictability, his likely campaign messaging between now and November, and all of the unknowns, it’s still too early to be certain where the public will be on control of Congress at election time.

But the fundamentals remain very much with the Democrats, as they have been for more than a year.

Midterms are almost always about the president. Twenty-three Republicans sit in districts carried by Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump’s job approval ratings are mediocre at best.

Democrats are angry and energized, as demonstrated by high-profile recent elections in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as from many local races around the country.

GOP House retirements mean fewer incumbents who would be best prepared to swim against the tide.

And, voters see the midterms as an opportunity to “check” Trump. That’s a formula for substantial Democratic House gains and control of the chamber next year. The burden is still on Republicans and the White House to change the midterms’ dynamics.

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