The flow of polling across the country about politics includes a question regularly asked of the electorate called the Generic Congressional Ballot. It simply asks how do you plan to vote in the upcoming 2018 election for the House of Representatives—Democrat or Republican? With seven months to go before the November election, this column looks at how the Democrats are doing on this national question by reviewing four recent polls and comparing them to what actually happened in the 2014 House elections. Looking at what really happened in the previous midterm election is a good reality test in thinking about what could happen in the next midterm. Generic Congressional ballot polls are challenging in their predictive value: after all, they are just snapshots in time with tiny samples of the huge American electorate. National congressional polls also do not provide data for the 435 individual Congressional districts as to how the electorate might vote in each of those districts.
Nate Silver, the statistician turned national polling expert with his own online analytical firm, 538.com, also provides a general rule of thumb for understanding the meaning of a generic Congressional ballot poll. In an article he wrote for 538 after the November 2017 election, where the Democrats had done well in Virginia and New Jersey, he said, “Democrats also face a big disadvantage in the way their voters are distributed across Congressional districts, as a result of both gerrymandering and geographic self-sorting. Although these calculations can vary based on incumbency advantage and other factors, my back-of-the-envelope math suggests that Democrats would only be about even money to claim the House even if they won the popular vote for the House by seven percentage points next year.“ This means that polls showing Democratic margins of seven points or better (as long as they are accurate when it comes to the actual result), suggest that Democrats have the potential to attain a Majority in the House.
Using the 2014 House elections as a starting point to compare current polls shows the challenge for the Democrats to win the Majority. Before that election, the Democrats held 201 seats and the Republicans held 234 as a result of the 2012 election, where the Democrats won eight seats in the year President Obama won re-election. 129 million people voted on the Presidential line that year, and 122 million votes were recorded as the sum of all the ballots in the House elections. But in 2014, the number of votes cast on the Congressional lines across the country dropped to 78 million, and the Democrats lost a net of 13 seats. The drop-off in the vote from the Presidential election to the off-year Congressional one is staggering.
The national Congressional popular vote in 2014 dropped by 44 million, more than one-third, compared to the votes on the Congressional line in 2012, from 122 million votes in 2012 to 78 million in 2014. The 2014 vote was also 8 million votes below the previous off-year Congressional election, 2010, when 86.7 million Americans voted (and the Democrats lost 63 seats). The 2014 vote was even below the 81 million who voted in 2006, eight years earlier. The Republicans won the 2014 national Congressional popular vote by six points, 51.2 to 45.5, with about three points for other candidates. On a straight Democrat vs. Republican, excluding votes for candidates of other parties, the Republicans won 53% to 47%.
This Exit Poll graph for the outcome of the 2014 Congressional election breaks down the vote both in overall numbers, as well as by racial and ethnic group.
The Republicans won 60% of the white vote, to 38% for Democrats. Blacks voted 89-10 Democratic and Hispanics voted 62-36 Democratic. Asians and others voted 50-49 Republican. National Exit Polls also reported that 75% of the 2014 electorate was white, 12% was black, 7% was Hispanic, and 5% was Asian or other.
With Donald Trump in office more than a year, Democrats are hopeful that his unpopularity and the traditional poor performance of the party that holds the presidency in the off-year will help them regain the majority in the House and either win the Senate or hold the line there. The Democrats need 24 seats to win back the majority. Whether it is galvanizing younger and minority voters, moving affluent suburbanites appalled by Trump to vote Democratic, or persuading ancestral white working class voters to come back to the Democrats, the Democrats have many messaging challenges to craft for these diverse groups. Local Democrats running in special elections for vacant seats have been running ahead of Hilary Clinton’s presidential election performance in those districts, sometimes by very large margins, and there are many Republican retirements, giving Democrats even more room for optimism.
Four polling firms completed national generic Congressional ballot question polls around the same time period in late March 2018. The firms are Quinnipiac, Fox News, Marist, and The Economist/You Gov. Here are their overall results compared to the 2014 Exit Poll.
The four polls are showing either 5 or 6 point Democratic leads. The results don’t add to 100 full points because some voters are undecided, and small numbers say they won’t vote or will vote for another party. All the polls are of registered voters, rather than all American adults, and generally had margins of error of +- 3 points. If the undecided voters split their votes along the same proportions as the voters who made choices in these polls, it would bring the Democratic margins up to 6-7 points, meaning the Democrats are just barely reaching the Nate Silver 7 point threshold he said the Democrats would need to have a breakeven chance to win the Majority.
Here are the 4 polls broken down by race and ethnicity:
For Black voters, the four recent polls show similar margins to how Black Americans voted in 2014; overwhelmingly Democratic, and likely to vote in the same range, 90-10 Democratic, as they did that year (an updated The Economist Poll this week had the Black electorate at 72-6 Democratic).
The results for Hispanic voters from the recent polls once again are similar to 2014; Hispanic voters are voting Democratic nearly 2-1. Fox News combined all nonwhite voters into one group in its release of data, but 69-21 is overwhelming when Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are combined and are actually several points higher for those groups combined than 2014. With Hispanics seven per cent of the turnout in 2014, a major challenge for the Democrats will be to increase Hispanic turnout, which was 11% of the vote in the 2016 Presidential election.
The results for white voters for the four recent polls compared to 2014 shows the Democrats getting a range of 38-41%, meaning they are holding their base of the white vote from 2014, 38%. The results for the Republicans show a range of 45-51%, below the 60% of whites who voted Republican in 2014. Undecided voters ranged from 9-17%. But if Democrats could win 40% of the undecided white voters, they would clearly do much better than 2014.
Many districts have not yet even nominated the person who will be the Democratic or Republican candidate. Many intangibles like candidate quality, local energy, sudden retirements of incumbents, fund-raising advantages, and the like can affect individual districts outcomes regardless of the overall national situation. But in the last week of March 2018 current polling shows the Democrats tantalizingly near where they need to be to win.
As a commentary on my brilliance, I thought Trump would only take a handful of states. My modest underperformance in predicting makes me hesitant to hazard any guess for the upcoming congressional races. However, one can hope that Americans will regain their good sense and vote the bums out.