Political prognosticators are having a field day predicting whether or not the GOP will see a wave election this cycle. One such prognosticator the optimistically left side of the aisle is Nate Cohn who argues that Democrats are polling far better at this point in the cycle than 2010. Espousing the opposite view is Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal and sitting somewhere in the middle is Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight.
Disagreement is all part and parcel of the political prediction process. Comparing polling from prior cycles is a particular favorite of many. Consider Cohn’s argument in its entirety (you can read it with the link above). Put simply, Cohn finds that Democrats poll better on the generic ballot this year than they did at this point in 2010 (by a lot) and far better than Republicans did in 2006 when Bush was dragging them down. It would seem hard to argue with these numbers yet it is surprisingly easy.
First-off, almost every sample taken so far is of registered voters (favors Democrats). By this point in the 201 cycle most pollsters RV models were only reporting the results of what their filtering methodologies deemed “Likely Voters.” Second, as has been noted by Kraushaar, at this point in 2010 many races had yet to fully develop. Nobody thought in August of 2010 Feingold (WI) was vulnerable and Pennsylvania was a toss-up. Republican nominees in New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte) and Florida (Marco Rubio) looked beatable and they ended up winning easily. Thirdly, the average of polls consistently underestimated GOP support in 2010. The average of polls by July 2010 had the GOP up almost five points and yet the GOP won the Congressional ballot by seven points in November. It is very possible there is a similar dynamic at work here.
Two more points. Generic ballot polling is important but it also is subject to respondent bias. That is why it is getting more important in surveys to look at who is most “excited” and not just likely to vote. In a recent Pew Research survey (which showed Dems ahead on the generic ballot) more Republicans and GOP leaning Independents were excited to vote than their partisan opposites. If this holds true it won’t matter what matter who non-voters support. Political parties don’t win if they can’t get their supporters to vote.
The last point is the most crucial and the simplest. In fact, it tends to often get overlooked. The GOP does not need a wave election this cycle. They dominate the House of Representatives and have few vulnerable open seats and incumbents in the lower chamber. The Senate landscape is extremely favorable to the party. In terms of the gubernatorial landscape, as noted by Harry Enten, Democrats have more upside, but they also need a lot of things to break their way to eat into the GOP’s 29 state executives advantage.
In the House, Republicans are expected to gain anywhere from two-ten seats (depending on the model and political handicapper used). This is partly due to the weakness of the President and his party but also because the GOP has recruited a strong crop of candidates to run in these seats. Consider the case of Carl DeMaio in CA-52, a swing district based in and around San Diego. DeMaio is no fire-breathing Republican and he is openly gay. He does not emphasize social issues but is clearly pro-life and he is fiscally pragmatic. In the open NJ-3 seat being vacated by Jon Runyan, Republicans coalesced around a strong, conservative nominee and avoided the baggage of perennial candidate Jon Lonegan. In Iowa’s 3rd CD, Republicans selected the more moderate nominee at their state convention (even more surprising). Elsewhere, in swing races across the country held by Democrats (beyond CA-52): AZ-2, IL-10, WV-3 and NY-21, the GOP has strongly coalesced around their nominees.
The Senate landscape is arguably even more favorable for the GOP. Now, I know that since 2004 only three Democratic incumbents have been defeated and the GOP needs to knock out at least two to regain the majority. But look at the places where the battle for control will take place; SD, WV, MT, AR, LA, AK, NC and increasingly IA and Colorado. The first seven states were carried by Romney in 2012 and the GOP has strong nominees in the IA and CO.
Republicans are expected to easily pick up three open seats in SD, WV and Montana after appointed Senator John Walsh’s plagiarism thing. After that it gets dicier with the GOP having to knock out at least two incumbents to gain at least six seats (Pryor-AR, Landrieu-LA, Begich-AK, Hagan-NC and Udall-CO). While the GOP has strong nominees in each race none are crushing the incumbent but then again GOP nominees were not crushing their Democratic opponents at this point in 2010 either.
If one looks at the dynamics of each of these races it becomes clear why the debate over whether a GOP wave is brewing or not is irrelevant. In Arkansas, Tom Cotton has the resume and money to battle the Pryor family name. Polling is sparse in the state but several GOP affiliated firms have him ahead by several points (no Democratic poll has countered this narrative). In Louisiana, one on one match-ups between Landrieu and Congressman Bill Cassidy show a dead heat or slight lead for the challenger. Alaska is harder to accurately poll but likely GOP nominees, Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell or Dan Sullivan, appear strong challengers to Begich. North Carolina and Colorado are both neck and neck. The political environment in North Carolina helps Hagan but the demographics hurt her. In Colorado, the demographics help Udall but the political environment wounds him. Republicans have an especially strong nominee in Iowa in Joni Ernst, who is running a stellar campaign compared to her opponent, Congressman Bruce Braley.
Certainly a wave election would help the GOP. But if polls in many of these races are any indication the GOP will not need one. Indeed, a wave election would likely net the GOP additional seats beyond these targets or at least make additional seats competitive (NH, MI, MN, OR and VA). Regardless, wave or no wave, the GOP is in a strong position this cycle with strong nominees, multiple targets and a favorable Senate landscape. This might explain why so many political handicappers are bullish on the GOP this cycle.