Did the Democrats peak too early?

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 43 – This week:

  • Did the Dems peak early?
  • Continued Republican Senate majority appears likely
  • Trump’s numbers peaking at the right moment


As we’ve noted previously, Democrats have a historic opportunity in 2018 to gain ground up and down the ballot.

This is their chance to start building a power base from which to push back against Trump’s changes to national policy and, ultimately, to his changes to the composition of the judiciary as well.

In 2010, Republicans had this same sort of chance, and they mostly took advantage of it. Despite losing some winnable U.S. Senate races that year, they built a large and sustainable House majority, locked themselves into a dominant position in state governments, and then they were able to build on those wins with another dominant 2014 performance. They used the Obama years to improve the party at every level except the presidency itself.

Democrats, locked out of government at the state and national level and watching the federal judiciary slip away, need something like that right now. If they underperform this time around, the long-term consequences for policy could be huge, because they may never develop the base from which to push back.

If that happens, the intra-party recriminations on the Left will be bitter, instant and intense two weeks from now.

Peaked early?

Are Democrats going to blow it? Well, it’s not that they won’t take the U.S. House — that’s still on the cards, and the chances are still better than even. But their chances are slimmer now, as is their expected margin of victory (in terms of seats). What was once viewed as a sure-thing “Blue Wave” may prove to be a Blue Ripple — a victory perhaps big enough to win narrow control of the U.S. House, but not enough to fundamentally change state government, commandeer next decade’s redistricting process, or undo major changes to state laws that all-Republican control has made possible over the last four to eight years in many states.

Everyone has noticed this change of fortunes. And the fact that official Washington is seriously having this conversation of “Will they? Won’t they?” is a bad sign for Democrats.

If they win, they will at least have the subpoena power, and the ability to harass the Trump administration. That is worth something. But they had a chance at so much more.

Meanwhile, Republicans seem rightly confident that they will hold the Senate, and probably add to their numbers. This, and the Democrats’ fading fortunes in some House races once viewed as winnable, seems to be related to recent Democratic behavior. Not just the angry mobs — motivators for conservatives from time immemorial. They might have won George W. Bush his re-election in 2004, the strongest popular vote performance by a Republican so far this century.

But what conservatives see as an unprecedented dirty-tricks campaign against Brett Kavanaugh might be the even greater motivator right now. Based on what happened at the beginning of this month, Democrats seem willing to destroy every Washington norm and custom and every constitutional safeguard if they ever regain power.

They have bared their fangs at the dumbest possible moment, when they should have hidden them. They have given the Right enough time to wake up, and the center enough time to reconsider, and that’s never a good thing.

House 2018

It’s hard to go over all 60 of the most competitive races and render a verdict, especially when more than half are true toss-up contests that everyone concedes could easily go either way. But something has definitely changed this month, likely connected to the Kavanaugh debacle.

Democrats still have a clear advantage on the generic ballot (i.e., the question of which party’s unnamed candidate they’ll vote for) in every poll, and they must still be favored to win the House. But the robust voter enthusiasm gap they had over Republicans has shrunk. Democrats seemed certain to turn out in unusually large numbers, as they had done in special elections for the last two years, while Republicans slept away the midterms.

As often happens in midterms — at least more often than not — overwhelming antipathy toward the sitting president seemed like it would drive every contest. But as of late October, this nationalized election trend seems to be weaker.

Dem gains may be limited:

Take the Wall Street Journal poll from this weekend. It shows Democrats with a seven-point generic ballot lead among registered voters and a nine-point lead among likely voters.

Now, that’s a big lead, even if a good portion of it is concentrated in dense Blue urban districts. Democrats are going to gain ground and must still be favored to scrape together a House majority. (That majority’s size is another question — note that in 2016 this same poll predicted Democrats would win the national popular vote for U.S. House by three points. Instead, they lost it by just over one point, and the loss would have been bigger except that they fielded candidates in more districts than the Republicans did.)

But first, note that this is an improvement for Republicans in a number of areas. In September, this same poll showed Democrats with a 12-point lead among registered voters, so that’s a five-point swing for the GOP. (There was no likely-voter screen in last month’s poll.)

Enthusiasm gap cut by nearly two-thirds:

Second, 72 percent of Democrats “expressed high interest” in voting in this election, compared to 68 percent of Republicans. As recently as August, the WSJ poll had a much larger gap, with 63 percent of Democrats and only 52 percent of Republicans expressing high interest. Republicans have closed the gap and are keeping pace in what is being called an unprecedented ramp-up in interest on both sides.

Trump approval peaking at the right time:

Third, note that Trump’s approval rating hit an all-time high in this poll — 47 percent among registered voters and 45 percent among likely voters. Trump’s approval remains negative, but it’s less negative than it’s been in this poll at any point since his inauguration. Also at an all-time high is the share (20 percent) who approve of Trump’s policies but dislike him personally — perhaps a sign of never-Trumpers and reluctant-Trumpers perceiving an existential threat from Democrats after their behavior toward Kavanaugh, thus warming to Trump’s presidency.

So in short, Trump’s numbers are peaking at the right time for Republicans. At this moment, the share of voters who view their vote as a protest specifically against Trump (33 percent) is only four points higher than the share voting specifically to show support for him (29 percent). This gap pales in comparison to the 15-point gap on this question in 2006, when it was asked of George W. Bush, and the 8-point gap of 2010, when it was asked of Barack Obama. Those elections were thus easier to nationalize just by invoking the names of unpopular presidents. This time, however, Democrats are finding they can only get so much mileage — and perhaps only in certain House races — by tying their Republican opponents to Trump.

Good issues for Republicans:

Fourth, note that the poll shows Republicans enjoying a 15-point advantage on handling the economy and a 17-point advantage on trade. This perception — and frankly, the fact that the economy is doing well for most people right now — is keeping things from becoming a lot more favorable to Democrats than they could be otherwise. The fact that voters also side with the GOP on the issue of guns (by five points) takes another potential cudgel out of Democrats’ hands in a lot of seats they need to win.

What does all of this mean? It means that a lot of Republican candidates in toss-up races (Cook Political Report, for one, lists 46 Republican-held seats in this situation right now) have a better chance of survival than they might otherwise.

Forecasters shrug at Blue Wave:

Another thing: Independent public polling from this month shows Democrats leading in 17 races that would represent pickups for them, and trailing in one race that would be a Republican pickup (in Minnesota’s Iron Range), for a net gain of 16.

Although Democrats are probably ahead in more seats than that, experienced handicappers such as Larry Sabato believe the Democrats are still four or five seats short of the 23 they will need to win control of the House.

Governor 2018

Florida: Despite a late outlier poll from CNN suggesting a done deal, this race is very close. All other polling put the race within a point or two, and either Republican Ron DeSantis or Democrat Andrew Gillum could be in the lead. DeSantis responded to CNN’s poll with his own internal poll showing a two-point lead for himself. Grain of salt, but this looks more like the recent trends.

The governor election in Florida might seem unimportant, given the high stakes involved with House and Senate control, but it will actually be one of the most consequential in America. As anyone who remembers the 2000 election recount in Florida might recall, the Florida Supreme Court, comprising seven liberals at the time, was quite a player in pushing events as close to a Gore victory as it could. Today, the court is still 4-3 liberal despite 20 years of Republican control of the governor’s mansion. The next governor will replace three of the four remaining liberals. A conservative court would finally permit the legislature to pass several long-needed reforms that the court’s liberals have repeatedly blocked, such as tort reform.

Senate 2018

Republican Majority Likely: At this point, North Dakota must be characterized a likely Republican pickup. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp sealed her fate with a newspaper ad that backfired mightily, doxxing a number of women (truly or falsely) as victims of sexual assault in the course of launching an attack against Rep. Kevin Cramer. Meanwhile, Republican Senate candidates in Texas (Ted Cruz) and Tennessee (Marsha Blackburn) seem to have built comfortable leads in their races this month.

Put those two developments together, without considering any of the other close Senate races where Democrats are on defense (Missouri, Montana, Indiana, West Virginia, Florida), and Democrats’ path to a Senate majority narrows to the vanishing point.

The problem is that even if Democrats pull off wins in both of the closest races where Republicans are defending — Arizona and Nevada, where the Republican candidates lead in the latest polls — they will still come up short of a majority. The loss of North Dakota would mean the best they could hope for is a 50-50 Senate, and that’s if Republican candidates fail across the board everywhere else.

Continued GOP control of the Senate would leave Trump with a free hand to reshape the judiciary over the next two years. As the first president to enjoy the Democrats’ “nuclear option” policy for four years (or more), he would have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the judiciary, completely unfettered by Democratic objections, and such that a large structural majority of judges might end up avoiding retirement during Democratic presidencies. Trump might also get to appoint one or two more justices to the Supreme Court before his re-election campaign begins in earnest.

Both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seem to be on the same page in this regard, and ready to push the confirmation machine to its limits as long as they can.

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