OFF TO THE RACES

Senate Republicans' spending is almost entirely defensive

In the presidential race, Biden is in a much better position than Clinton was four years ago.

Sen. Joni Ernst pulls on a rucksack on the Senate floor.
C-SPAN
May 21, 2020, 9:48 p.m.

Enough of the talk about the possibility of another split between electoral and popular votes for president, which would be the third in 20 years. Here’s a better challenge for 2020 election aficionados: First, if Republicans only hold onto one thing, is it more likely to be the White House or their majority in the Senate? Second—keeping in mind that Democrats need a net gain of three Senate seats if they win the White House, four if they don’t—which is more likely: Democrats picking up just one or two seats, coming up short again, or gaining at least five seats (Republicans breaking even or gaining seats is very unlikely)? That’s a tough call, since at this point, I’d set the betting line at three or four seats, right on the cusp.

A Fox News poll released Thursday evening shows Joe Biden leading President Trump by 8 points. A Quinnipiac University poll out Wednesday gave Biden an 11-point lead. These are certainly encouraging signs for Democrats, but as we all know, the national polls attempt to measure the national popular vote, which along with $5 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. While there is no doubt that a popular vote lead that large would suggest Biden hits 270 electoral votes with room to spare, you have to account for leakage this early in the game. So this is still very much a race.

Senate

Just as a very challenging map put Senate Democrats mostly on defense in 2018, the political environment and a moderately challenging map are putting Senate Republicans almost entirely on defense this year. There is little doubt about either former Attorney General Jeff Sessions or former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville unseating Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama. But after that, there is only one plausible Democratic target for the GOP—Michigan Democrat Gary Peters.

Figures compiled for Senate Democrats indicate that by the middle of last week, Senate Republicans and their allied PAC had reserved $97 million in television air time for the period from June 1 through Election Day, with $94 million of that booked on behalf of seven GOP incumbents who are in various levels of jeopardy. It does not include time buys or reservations for the period prior to the end of May, so the actual spending levels are much higher. Just under $2.5 million was booked for John James’s race against Peters. About two-thirds of the reservations were from the Senate Leadership Fund, the primary GOP Senate super PAC. The remaining third was by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

In the new world order (and federal-election law), super PACs are better positioned to raise and spend money than the official party committees. Many younger politicos and journalists do not know that for a long time, into the early 1980s, the age-old House and Senate campaign committees for each party actually officed in the House and Senate office buildings, with names on the building directories and doors, and had 225 (House) and 224 (Senate) telephone numbers. That stopped after the post-Watergate reforms. While Democratic and Republican Senate and House campaign committees are not allowed to collude together, if one surmised that they worked almost hand-in-glove, one might not be wrong. The principal super PACs for each federal quadrant (Democrat and Republican, House and Senate) are headed up by former executive directors of their party’s campaign committees.

The beneficiaries of the $94 million are Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Susan Collins in Maine, Steve Daines in Montana, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina.

Trump, Biden, and the double haters

In a 2016 election settled by two-tenths of 1 percentage point in one state (Michigan) and seven-tenths in two others (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), there are plenty of groups and events that could legitimately be said to have decided the outcome. Exit polls indicated that 55 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Hillary Clinton, while 60 percent had unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump. Eighteen percent overlapped; that is, they had an unfavorable view of both of them. That clearly torn group, dubbed “the double-haters” by the Trump campaign according to Bloomberg’s Josh Green in his 2017 book on the campaign, ended up voting for Trump by a 17-point margin, 47 to 30 percent.

A good question now is how many voters have an unfavorable view (which is a slightly different question than the job-approval rating) of both Trump and Biden, and how they may vote. In the two polls out this week, Biden didn’t have great numbers. But Trump’s were so much worse. The Fox poll showed Biden’s favorable at 48 percent with an unfavorable of 46 percent (net plus-2), Quinnipiac had 45 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable (net plus-4) for the former vice president. For Trump, Fox showed 43 percent favorable, 55 percent unfavorable (net minus-12). Quinnipiac had him at 40 percent favorable, 55 percent unfavorable (net minus-15).

By way of comparison, at this point four years ago, the Fox poll showed Hillary Clinton had a 37 percent favorable rating compared to 61 percent unfavorable. Trump fared better, with 41 percent viewing him favorably compared to 56 percent viewing him unfavorably.

Quinnipiac poll Director Doug Schwartz kindly provided me with the ballot test among the 8 percent of the 1,323 registered voters surveyed who had an unfavorable view of both men. Biden led this group by 26 points, 44 to 18 percent. The Fox News poll showed Biden up by 29 points, 40 to 11 percent. It should be pointed out that these are small subsamples, but the margin of error in both is statistically significant. It would appear that Biden is not in the same position that Clinton was, at least not yet.

Like an onion, this race still has layers, but very few of these layers look good for the president. The remaining six months should give Republicans plenty of heartburn, if not the tears that normally accompany peeling onions.

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