GOP down-ballot fortunes — not so bad?

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 27-

Happy Independence Day!

This week:

  • Generic congressional ballot polling looks reasonably good for Republicans
  • Rubio re-entry, Murphy scandal in Florida helps GOP
  • Why congressional Republicans are always less popular than congressional Democrats

Donald Trump may not be leading in most presidential polls right now, but Republicans suddenly feel they have reason to like their chances down-ballot. For one thing, there’s Marco Rubio’s re-entry into the Florida Senate race, just as a grave scandal slammed his most formidable opponent. There’s also a new poll showing them even with Democrats on the generic ballot.

Early signs, perhaps, of a mild 2016?

Congress 2016

Again and again, we have asked how Trump at the top of the ticket might affect races down-ballot. The precise effect on turnout may remain a mystery, but in terms of public preference the effect can still be measured in polls.

Last week, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll came out, perhaps providing a less dire answer than many Republicans have expected.

The poll shows the generic congressional ballot — the vote that for each of the two parties for Congress, tied at 46 percent. This is a significant finding, for three reasons.

  • First, recent history: Previously, the same poll had showed Democrats with a nine-point lead. Although this tie does not match all available data, it does match the Washington Post/ABC News poll, bringing two of the three major media polls into alignment on the question. Republicans were quite afraid here, because they had been ahead or tied in nearly all polls between February and May, then suddenly fell behind when Donald Trump clinched the GOP nomination.
  • Second, the present: The same respondents in this very same late June poll opted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in a head-to-head, 46 to 41 percent. (Clinton only led 39 to 38 percent in a four-way race including Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.) This is also a group of respondents that views Obama’s performance favorably, 51 to 45 percent. So Republican congressional candidates have to be happy to see they have a shot of outperforming both Trump and Obama’s disapproval numbers. If Trump wins, so do they, in all likelihood. If he loses, they might just keep the U.S. House anyway.
  • Third, ancient history: The generic ballot question at this point in 2008 showed a 19-point margin in favor of Democrats, according to the same poll. Obviously, a tie is considerably better than that for congressional Republicans. Still, when it comes to this specific metric, a tie historically signifies a Republican advantage. In June 2014, five months before what turned out to be an excellent Republican midterm election, Republicans actually trailed by two points in this poll.

Whatever the reason for this divergence between Trump and the congressional GOP in polling, this may hold forth some grounds for optimism among Republicans that even a terrible loss in presidential race might not turn into another 2008, when Obama’s victory was accompanied by an additional, brutal beating of Republicans down-ballot, after their already devastating losses of 2006. That election gave Obama complete power.

A tie on the generic ballot, on the other hand, hints that such a result is unlikely this time, even in the event of a Clinton victory. A tie, by this measure, is easily good enough for the GOP to maintain its House majority.


Florida: The Senate is another story, of course, but there are at least a few hopeful signs there as well.

The re-entry of Marco Rubio into the Florida Senate race is one very positive development for the party. Before this, Florida Republicans faced the challenge of creating a newly successful political career for one of several obscure aspirants in an unpredictable political environment. Now, they only need to defend an incumbent who, even though he lost his home state primary to Trump, remains quite popular at home.

Even better, the more formidable of the two main Democratic hopefuls for the seat was busted for faking his career credentials. The stories about Patrick Murphy were devastating to his chances. They certainly weaken Murphy, who could offer no good response to charges that were clearly true. The charges also give new life to the possibility of a primary victory by Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, who is almost certainly unelectable statewide.


Congress approval: One counterargument, often trotted out, is that congressional Republicans are consistently more unpopular than congressional Democrats. It is true that the poll numbers show this consistently, but it is even more important to understand why, because it demonstrates why this metric should not be trusted.

Take the latest Quinnipiac poll: Only 16 percent approve of Republicans in Congress, with 78 percent disapproving. And compare that to Democrats in Congress, whose approval is 34 percent and disapproval just 61 percent.

That might make you think Republicans are on the edge of a collapse, but the fact is, this is nearly always the case. Republicans posted very similar numbers in June 2014, for example (18 percent approval, 73 percent disapproval).

Here’s the reason that isn’t true. The explanation for the discrepancy between Republicans and Democrats in Congress is almost entirely due to voters who vote for Republican candidates but voice disapproval of Republicans. Democratic voters simply aren’t critical of their own party in the same way Republicans are.

Take the split by party in this poll:


Republicans in Congress, Republican voters only:


Approve: 28%

Disapprove: 65%


Democrats in Congress, Democratic voters only:


Approve: 70%

Disapprove: 26%


Not only is this dynamic assymetrical, but there is a near symmetry in the assymetry, so to speak. Republican voters are far less complacent and more critical of their own party as a rule. You will find this to be the case in every poll like this one, going back for some time.

And this tendency of Republicans to be extra critical drives nearly all of the difference between the two parties in this sort of poll. (Independents also drive this difference to some degree, but don’t forget that they tend to vote and be more conservative on average, balancing out an assymetry in formal party identification that favors Democrats.)

The hope of the GOP is that the conservative voters creating this disparity do as they did in 2014 — vote for the party they’re unhappy with over the one they cannot stand. But we live in the Trump era, so don’t forget that this is not a guarantee. If discontent becomes great enough that Republican voters won’t actually vote, then this measure could indeed become meaningful. It’s just that it really shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a sign of electoral doom for now, because it never has been in the past.