If the recent slate of polls have made anything become clear it is that the closer we get to election day the worse the environment appears for Democrats. Just look at the evidence from the Senate. Short of Michigan, every race that could looked competitive at the beginning of the cycle has become so. This can be seen by the table below.
As of today, 10 Senate races are competitive on the Democratic side and arguably just three on the Republican side. I have taken polling averages of races from June until today from RCP and the Huffington Post. Note: HuffPo and RCP do not always include the same polls in their averages so some variation is involved in this table.
|State||June R %||June D %||June R/D Advantage||Oct R%||Oct D%||Oct R/D Advantage||June/Oct Difference|
|New Hampshire||38.3%||45%||D + 6.7%||45.2%||47.8%||D + 2.6%||R + 4.1%|
|North Carolina||43%||42.2%||R + .8%||44.2%||45.4%||D + 1.2%||D + 2%|
|Arkansas||43%||45.7%||D + 2.7%||46.8%||41.3%||R + 5.5%||R + 8.2%|
|South Dakota||44%||30%||R + 14%||38.3%||28.5%||R + 9.8%||D + 4.2%|
|West Virginia||48.5%||38.5%||R + 10%||53.3%||36.3%||R + 17%||R + 7%|
|Montana||*||*||*||52.3%||33.3%||R + 19%||R + 19%|
|Louisiana||42.4%||45.8%||D + 3.4%||49.8%||43.9%||R + 5.9%||R + 9.3%|
|Colorado||44.3%||43.9%||R + .4%||45.5%||44.1%||R + 1.4%||R + 1%|
|Iowa||46.3%||44.4%||R + 1.9%||47.2%||45%||R + 2.2%||R + .2%|
|Alaska||43.1%||45.4%||D + 2.3%||48.1%||43.5%||R + 3.6%||R + 5.9%|
|Kansas||*||*||*||44.2%||43.6% (I)||R + .6%||R + .6%|
|Kentucky||46.1%||42.8%||R + 3.3%||48.9%||44.9%||R + 4%||R + .7%|
|Georgia||45.2%||41.5%||R + 3.7%||46%||42.1%||R + 3.9%||R + .2%|
First, a number of other races could be included on this list. Virginian Senator Mark Warner has seen his lead shrink significantly but he still holds a strong, high single-digit lead. Ditto in New Mexico. These races are not included on the list because the GOP’s chances for winning, like in Michigan, are long-shots at best and would require something special to pull off.
Second, as one can see from the table above Republicans have almost uniformly increased their standing in every race from June until today. The exceptions are North Carolina, where Senator Hagan has hammered Thom Tillis on education and South Dakota, where Independent Larry Pressler has eaten into Mike Rounds support. Some caveats should also be mentioned. Louisiana’s numbers are only from a head to head match-up between Cassidy and Landrieu and Montana has seen a new Democratic candidate emerge since John Walsh announced he would not seek a full term after his plagiarism scandal. Further, Independent Greg Orman has emerged only since late June to challenge Senator Roberts in Kansas when Democrat Chad Taylor dropped off the ballot.
Republicans have not just improved their standing in individual Senate races but they have also done so on the generic ballot. In June, the RCP average had Democrats and Republicans roughly tied. Now, the average shows the GOP with a 4.2% edge, likely fueled by pollsters switching from registered voter to likely voter models.
All this suggests the election is returning to the fundamentals. A number of analyses back up this assertion. Dan McLauglin at Red State found seven races flipped leads in 2012, all toward Democrats; two flipped in 2010, one for each party; three flipped in 2008, all toward Democrats; three flipped in 2006, all toward Democrats; four flipped in 2004, all toward Republicans; and three flipped in 2002, all toward Republicans. Plus, the fundamentals in each election favored the winner. Another analysis found that many races in wave elections do not break until late. Pubic Opinion Strategies, a GOP pollster, found that late deciders (those that decided in the final week) broke decisively against GOP incumbents in 2006. Independents overwhelmingly went for Democratic challengers as well. As a result, Democrats gained a net of six Senate seats.
Republicans could be on course to do even better thanks to a favorable map and a strong crop of candidates. Democratic turnout is depressed, the President is deeply unpopular, and the economy is still struggling to grow. Meanwhile, scandals continue to dog the White House and Democratic candidates are failing to distance themselves from the President. For a few incumbents, Shaheen and Hagan, they may have light at the end of the tunnel due to their personal brands and unpopular opponents. But for many other Democrats no such light exists.
Of course, it is instructive to remember that 2006 and 2010 were different from today. In 2006 and 2010 both parties succeeded in marginalizing third-party opponents, Yet, today we have a Pressler in South Dakota wreaking havoc on Mike Round’s campaign and in Kansas, Independent Greg Orman is running neck and neck with Pat Roberts. Further, in states like Georgia and North Carolina, libertarian candidates are set to play spoiler to both Democratic and GOP chances.
But, it could be argued Pressler and especially Orman cannot get ahead because of these fundamentals. Voters in these red states want a GOP Senate to check the President. As a result, it has been easy for Rounds to right his ship by arguing Pressler would not check the President (climate change, Obamacare) and for Roberts to claw his way back into contention against Orman. Without such fundamentals an unpopular incumbent against a strong Independent might very well fall.
Another difference is the popularity of the parties. In 2006 the Democratic brand was strong and the GOP’s extremely weak. In 2010 the GOP brand was still weak but so was the Democratic brand. Today, the Democratic Party has recorded its worst ever favorable rating in the polls while the GOP has inched up, if only slightly.
Against this backdrop voters must decide who to support and for the GOP their last fundamental in a majority of races are strong candidates. From Cory Garnder in Colorado to Joni Ernst in Iowa to Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, the party has successfully recruited a strong crop of candidates. Democrats did the same in 2006 to exploit the favorable national environment.
One last point before I leave. It is quite possible the polls are biased towards the GOP in some of these races. Or they may not be. Further complicating the situation are the improved ground games of both Democrats and Republicans which could lead to unexpected increases in turnout not reflected by the polls. Changes in state voter ID laws and Colorado’s new change to an all mail voting system also could lead to unexpected polling errors.
Still, even so, the odds seem to tilt towards this election being about the fundamentals and Democrats can do little to combat this trend. If it continues up to election day, Democrats will have a longer night than the GOP did in 2006.
Addendum: Due to the number of tight races and their locations (Alaska) and election laws (run-offs likely in Georgia and Louisiana) we may not know who controls the Senate until the next morning with LA and GA run-offs carrying the election into the New Year.