The public polling right now is just sort of weird. The president's job approval nationally is 42 percent. This should be consistent with a terrible midterm election for Democrats. And, indeed, we have polling consistent with that: Jeanne Shaheen’s tight race in New Hampshire; Cory Gardner’s and Joni Ernst’s substantial leads in Colorado and Iowa; generic ballot polling showing Republicans up by eight and six points in some polls (leads similar to what those pollsters found in 2010); anecdotes of Democrats sending funds to Lois Capps’ otherwise-safe California district.
Yet there is what we might consider a second batch of polling that is deeply inconsistent with the notion of a wave: Generic balloting showing a tie or even a Democratic lead; competitive governors’ races; small (though firm) leads for Tom Cotton in Arkansas; competitive races in Georgia and Kansas; polling showing close House races in places like Arkansas and Michigan that weren’t on anyone’s radar even a month ago.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that many of these races see an unusually high number of undecided voters (or claiming they will vote third party). Using the RCP polling averages: about 14 percent of the electorate is undecided/voting third party in North Carolina (9 percent if you count Libertarian Sean Haugh as a major party candidate) and Virginia; 13 percent is undecided/voting third party in Michigan; 12 percent in Kansas and Kentucky; 11 percent in Arkansas; 9 percent in Alaska, Colorado and Iowa. The only competitive state that is really where we would expect it to be at this point in the cycle is New Hampshire.
Now remember, polling is a bit of a lagging indicator; a lot of the polls we’re receiving today were conducted earlier in the week -- about seven to 10 days out. So there’s more time for voters to make a move than we might perceive today.
With that said, I see two basic scenarios for what might happen between now and Nov. 4. Of course, I’m not possessed of a crystal ball, and there are certainly other scenarios I can imagine (catastrophic polling failure, for one). But these are the ones where I think we have more than just pure conjecture to work with.
The first scenario involves the working hypothesis I’ve used for most of this cycle: Gravity wins out. In that scenario, Democrats are effectively capped by the president’s job approval, and undecided voters break heavily toward Republicans. Indeed, most of what we see right now is perfectly consistent with this theory. Democrats tend to run a few points ahead of the president’s projected job approval in their states: They are generally polling in the low 40s in the red states, in the mid-to-high-40s in the purple states, and in the low 50s in the bluer states.
Under this scenario, we should expect to see something akin to what we’ve seen over the past few months: A gradual improvement of the GOP’s position in most races. The most prominent example of this is in New Hampshire, where Scott Brown has won over virtually every undecided voter, but you can also see a gentler version of this in the Virginia Senate race. This would be something like what occurred in 1980 and 1994, when we really were blindsided by a number of the races that broke for Republicans. If this happens, we’d see double-digit gains for the GOP in the House and probably nine or 10 seats picked up in the Senate.
The second possibility is actually a variant of the first, and it reflects what I think happened in 2012. Although my “missing white voters” theory has been connected with arguments for and against the GOP’s embrace of immigration reform, it really grew out of an attempt to explain some weird results from the 2012 election: The fact that Obama won despite low turnout, a pairing I don’t think many analysts were predicting; the fact that the nonwhite share of the electorate grew despite low turnout, a result I don’t think many analysts were expecting; the fact that Obama’s national margin was larger than the margin of any poll in the closing month of the campaign.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 2012 polls was that Obama’s job approval -- 54 percent -- was higher than any poll had suggested it had been in over a year.
The thing is, we know that many last-minute undecided voters ultimately decide not to vote. But it doesn’t follow that these are apathetic voters. In fact, you can explain much of the above if it is the case that the voters who stayed home in 2012 were adults who fit the profile of likely voters, disapproved of the job that the president did, and ultimately decided that they didn’t care for the Republicans either and opted to stay home.
In this sense, I think the large number of undecided voters -- who almost certainly disapprove of the president by large margins -- are a potential red flag for Republicans. At this point, what more can Republicans do to convince them to make up their minds? Mark Warner has been stuck in the high 40s/low 50s for several months now. In theory, Ed Gillespie should be making a race of it by now. Yet he remains mired in the high 30s (although he has closed the gap somewhat). There seems to be a substantial chunk of the Minnesota electorate that isn’t prepared to commit fully to Al Franken, yet isn’t excited about Mike McFadden.
If these voters ultimately opt disproportionately to stay home, it would transform an electorate where the president has a 42 percent job approval into one where he has a 46 percent job approval. This probably wouldn’t be enough to save the Senate: Democrats who trailed would still lose, albeit by small margins. But it would probably cap Republican gains in the House, and would probably transform an opportunity for a huge GOP night in the Senate into a modest wave of six or seven seats.
Again, the electorate could surprise us. Maybe these voters who disapprove of the president will nevertheless opt to vote for his party -- although that would break a trend of polarization dating back to the mid-2000s, as well as a substantial body of political science literature that holds that elections are referenda on the party in power. Or, maybe the polls really will just be plain wrong.
But as I think it through, I think what we’ve discussed in detail here really are the most likely outcomes. We’ll either see a heavy, last-minute break for Republicans, resulting in a wave, as undecided voters decide to cast their votes as a referendum on the president, or these voters will opt to stay home, the electorate will be made more heavily Democratic, and the Republicans will be left somewhat disappointed.
Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.
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