I am forced to wonder whether my certainty that 2014 will constitute a wave election is founded ore on firm statistical evidence or a gut instinct. The number of polls out there certainly do not help. Nor do their results. For example polls in New Hampshire in the last month have shown Senator Jeanne Shaheen ahead by as much as 11%. Others have shown the race tied.
But despite my concerns I am buoyed by new evidence of late suggesting many races are breaking towards the fundamentals. First, the generic ballot and several polled House races (admittedly with small samples) are breaking the GOP’s way. The generic ballot has especially moved towards the GOP from a RCP average of 1.4% Dem to 4% GOP (5.4% move to the GOP). Second, Senate polls are also moving towards the GOP in all but a few states.
Sean Trende at RCP has an excellent compilation of polling averages looking at competitive races (sorry, OR and VA are not included). As Trende says, “Of the 11 races that RCP tracks, seven have moved toward Republicans. The average movement is 1.2 points, with a median of 0.8 points. This isn’t as pronounced a shift as we’ve seen in the congressional races, but it is real.”
A note needs to be added on the four races where Democrats have improved their standing; Michigan, North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia. Short of Georgia, Democrats are outspending their opponents and have smoothed out their campaign operations. For Bruce Braley in Iowa this was a must or he likely would be well behind. The spending disparity is greatest in North Carolina where Kay Hagan is using state issues to hammer Speaker of the House Thom Tillis on education funding and ethics. This lack of funding has damaged Tillis’s campaign, perhaps irreparably.
But, here is the important part. In all four of the races where Democrats have improved their polling averages it is not because they have gained support (minus a few polling outliers) but rather their GOP challengers numbers have dropped. As Trende points out on North Carolina, “Thom Tillis has seen his numbers plummet in the wake of an advertising blitz, from receiving 45 percent of the vote in mid-August to receiving 40.6 percent today.”
Now, to depart from quoting Trende this does not bode well for Democrats for a very important reason as illustrated by a recent piece from Dan McLaughlin at RedState. He looked at all Senate races from 2002-onward starting from mid-September to the actual result. What McLaughlin found was a significant amount of uncertainty. This uncertainty might have been caused by including safe races but digging deeper one comes to some obvious conclusions.
First, depending on the year a majority of key races reverted to the fundamentals. In other words in 2002, 2004, and 2010 a significant number of close Senate contests moved strongly towards the GOP. In 2006, 2008 and 2012 close races moved towards the Democrats.
Second, you can add something to this analysis; presidential approval. In 2002 and 2004 the GOP did best in states where President Bush was fairly popular. They did best in states where Obama was underwater in 2010. Likewise, Democrats did best in states where Bush was weak in 06 and 08 and in states Obama was popular in (2012). Even taking safe seats out of the equation shows the connection. Put simply, since 2002 Democratic and Republican Senate candidates election numbers have tended to converge on Presidential approval/disapproval numbers.
For examples I return to Trende, “In 2006, however, Republican vote shares hardly improved from their September showing. Tom Kean was leading Bob Menendez, 45 percent to 41 percent; he received 44.3 percent of the vote. Mike DeWine trailed Sherrod Brown, 47.7 percent to 44 percent; he received 43.8 percent of the vote. George Allen led Jim Webb, 48 percent to 43.3 percent of the vote; he received 49.2 percent of the vote. The president’s job approval in New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia (respectively): 35 percent, 41 percent, and 45 percent.” The same phenomenon hurt Republicans in 2008.
Now, I have never fully subscribed to this theory. There are always examples counter to this available to note. But, just as North Carolina exemplifies these examples are usually driven far more by individual state dynamics. Yet, if one looks at a couple of races where Democrats have improved their standing even I must admit the above theory seems to be holding water.
Let’s look at Michigan and Minnesota. As noted above, Democrats have improved their standing in their states but they have done so by only weakening their GOP opponent. Consider that Peters (MI) has seen his lead increase but his actual polling average drop from 45.3% to 44.3%. His opponent, Land has dropped more from 41.4% to 38.9%. In Minnesota, Al Franken has dropped from 52% to 49.8% while his opponent, Mike McFadden, has dropped from 41.7% to 40.3%. Further, the Democrats numbers in these states correlate with current Presidential approval (within 1%-5%).
So, if this theory holds water we should expect two things to happen by November. First, as Republicans start unleashing their Committee war chests to even the ad disparity we should expect uneven polling to continue. But second, and more importantly, we should soon expect to see undecided voters start to move towards the GOP in some fashion. In states where the President is incredibly weak (LA, AR, KY, GA, etc.) we should expect to see pronounced movement towards the GOP. In states where the President is underwater but not sub 40 approval ratings (MN, MI, IA, NH, CO) we should expect to see some sort of movement towards the GOP.
However, North Carolina illustrates how candidate qualities and state specific issues can impact this theory. In this vein one should not be surprised to see Democrats run ahead of the President in virtually every state as even some voters who disapprove of the President (be they Dems or Independents) will vote for the Democratic candidate. As this is assured to happen the inevitable and most critical question will be by what margin can Democrats outrun the President’s disapproval?
Note: In both Oregon and Virginia the President is underwater but Senators Mark Warner (VA) and Jeff Merkeley (OR) are crushing their opponents. However, even their polling averages give the above theory and analysis credence.
Virginia: In Virginia Warner has dropped from 52%-50% since September and his opponent has jumped from 33%-35%. This can largely be attributed to a new Quinnipiac poll showing Warner in a closer race than other pollsters. Warner has incredible approval ratings for a Congressional member likely allowing him to run well ahead of the President.
Oregon: In Oregon Merkley had 52.3% of the average vote at the beginning of September but he has dropped to 50.3%. His opponent, Monica Wehby, has gone from 36.7% to 35.7%. Merkeley is popular in the state with approval ratings over 50% allowing him to run ahead of the President’s mid 40 approval ratings.
Addendum: A slate of new polls in Iowa, Colorado and Louisiana seem to be indicating, if only anecdotal, the Senate battleground map, is tilting towards the GOP.