Off to the Races

Why Dems Are in the Driver's Seat for House Control

A new survey shows Democrats particularly well-positioned in the nation's most competitive districts.

AP Photo/Steve Karnowski
Oct. 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

With 12 days to go before the midterm elections, there are plenty of reasons to believe that we know the general directions that the House, Senate, gubernatorial, and state legislative elections will go, just not the degrees.

After the political fallout from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation fight, if Democrats can just break even in the Senate, it would be a relief for them. Right now, GOP gains look very likely, but if so, is it one, two, or three seats? Two or three months ago, pre-Kavanaugh, it was plausible that Democrats could capture the two seats needed to flip control of the Senate, though a gain or loss of one seat or no net change was a more likely outcome.

In the House, will the Democratic gain be above or below the 30-35 seat range? In the contests for governorships, will Democratic gains be closer to five seats or to eight or 10? In terms of state legislative seats gained, is it closer to 400 or to 700? And in chambers controlled, will it be closer to a half-dozen chambers flipping from red to blue or is it closer to a dozen?

For once, it is the fight for control of the House that is getting more attention than for the Senate, and a national survey conducted for The Cook Political Report and Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications, in conjunction with Manship School Fellow James Carville, underscores that movement in favor of Democrats in the House. While among registered voters nationally, Democrats have a 7-point lead over the GOP in terms of the generic-congressional-ballot test, 45 to 38 percent, among voters in the 72 districts considered most competitive by The Cook Political Report, Democrats had an 11-point lead, 43 to 32 percent. When those who were undecided but leaning toward a party were included, Democrats were still ahead by 11 points, 45 to 34 percent. An Oct. 15-21 Washington Post-Shar School poll in 69 competitive districts released this week put Democrats ahead for Congress as well, though by a 3-point margin, 50 to 47 percent.

While 39 percent of registered voters nationally approved of the job that President Trump is doing, 55 percent disapproved; among those in the competitive districts, the president’s approval rating was 5 points lower at 34 percent, and his disapproval rating was 3 points higher at 58 percent. When those who approved or disapproved of Trump’s performance were asked a follow-up question of whether they strongly approved/disapproved or just somewhat approved/disapproved, the intensity of opposition was greater in the competitive districts than in the national electorate: Those who strongly approved of Trump in battleground seats were 18 percent, 2 points below the country as a whole, those who strongly disapproved 45 percent, 2 points higher than the nation.

The CPR/Manship School survey of 1,301 registered voters was conducted Oct. 10-19 using an online panel.*

Disproportionately, the battle for control of the House is being fought in suburban districts where Trump is a liability, not in more-rural and small-town-oriented districts where the president is an asset for his party. That is why Trump is still able to boost GOP fortunes in many of the Senate contests, most of which are in red states, while being something of a millstone around the necks of Republicans in the suburban House districts that matter most. Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman has dubbed this the “Year of the Fired-Up Female College Graduate.”

A generally accepted rule of thumb is that Democrats need a lead of at least seven points in the national popular vote for the House, matching the generic ballot number in the CPR/Manship School poll. The RealClearPolitics average of national polls is 7.5 percent, while Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight average is 8.3 percent. But when you look exclusively at the most competitive districts, not at the slam-dunk seats where parties waste votes by running up the score, and keeping in mind that only a handful of the competitive seats are held by Democrats, a generic lead for Democrats of 3 points, as the Washington Post/Schar School poll shows, or of 11 points, as the CPR/Manship School polls indicates, would both indicate Democrats having an advantage in terms of control of the House.

This top-down, macro-political view of the House matches a more race-by-race, micro-political analysis, starting with Alabama’s 1st District and going through Wyoming’s at-large seat, suggesting that Democratic gains in the 30- to 35-seat range, more than the 23 needed to tip control, are likely to occur.

*The survey was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel. A representative group of households had been invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. Those who agreed to participate but did not already have internet access, were provided a laptop and ISP connection at no cost. Those who already have computers and internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Those in the panel are sampled monthly for the Ipsos KnowledgePanel®.

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