Off to the Races

A Tale of Two Increasingly Divergent Elections

The Kavanaugh fight exacerbated differences between the parties—and the House and Senate.

Supporters of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh gather inside the Hart Senate Office Building on Sept. 27.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 11, 2018, 8 p.m.

It turns out that the bitter fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination was what I call a color-enhancement event—it made the reds redder and the blues bluer.

The old cliché about partisans coming home before an election is true, but the reality for Democrats was that this time, they never actually left home. Democrats have been manning—or in many cases “womaning”—the ramparts ever since Election Day 2016. While the natural “coming home” phenomenon for Republicans would be happening anyway, the fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination expedited and perhaps turbocharged that dynamic, possibly nixing the chances for any Senate Democrats who were counting on many Republican or GOP-leaning independents votes to win.

From January through August, in their national surveys for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Fred Yang found that when they asked voters to rate their interest in the upcoming midterm elections, on a scale of 1 to 10, 63 percent of Democrats put themselves as 9s or 10s, extremely interested, while 51 percent of Republicans said the same. But going into the height of the Kavanaugh fight, their Sept. 16-19 poll found that Democrats went up just 2 more points to 65 percent, while Republicans rose 10 points to 61 percent. And that was before the nomination fight hit its crescendo.

For Senate Democrats in red states seeking to swim up the partisan stream, the fallout from the Kavanaugh nomination opened up the floodgates, making their challenge exponentially more difficult. In congressional districts with substantial suburban populations, particularly college-educated ones, the fallout for Republicans among many women offset this heightened partisanship. But in states with fewer such suburbs, things just got redder. That’s why over the last couple of weeks, the Senate has become even more difficult for Democrats than before even as the House looks as bad as ever for Republicans, their hopes for holding onto a majority all but gone.

While much has appropriately been said and written about intensity and enthusiasm among partisans, and how key that is for turnout, what has largely gone unnoticed is the partisan differential even before intensity is considered. In the five national NBC/WSJ polls conducted since the beginning of June, amounting to over 4,000 interviews with registered voters, the share of voters initially identifying as Democrats was 32 percent, 6 points more than the 26 percent who called themselves Republicans, while 29 percent identified themselves as independents. Twenty-four percent of all registered voters considered themselves strong Democrats, 20 percent strong Republicans. Keep in mind that basically 90 percent of partisans habitually vote for their party. Eleven percent said they were independents who leaned Democrat, 10 percent leaned toward Republican, and 8 percent had no lean, were “pure independents.” Remember that 80 percent of independents who lean Democrat, can be counted on voting Democrat, the same for independents who lean Republican, just as regularly vote Republican.

When you add it all up, those that identify with or lean toward Democrats make up 42 percent, while 36 percent identify or lean Republican, still a 6-point Democratic advantage (the numbers vary a bit due to rounding). We will see in about 10 days (that’s when the next NBC/WSJ poll is expected to be released) whether an increase in GOP intensity has equaled the level of Democrats.

One additional theme we have been seeing is that spending in many states—particularly the most Republican ones—has really taken hold as an issue, especially when it comes to school funding and teacher pay. In Kansas and Oklahoma, Democrats have been mounting unusually strong challenges for governor, but it’s unclear whether they can hold up post-Kavanaugh. It had appeared that tax cuts and their corresponding spending cuts in these states had gone too far, working against Republicans in state elections. Will that continue, or will the “coming home” of the party’s voters negate that?

Back on the federal level, what is so interesting is the split between the direction of these Senate races and what we are seeing in the House—there is an unmistakable shift in public and private polling toward Republicans in the Senate but only modest movement toward the GOP in the House, where the bad news is simply unrelenting. This “tale of two elections” theme continues.

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