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Final Week Fundamentals

AWalter Head
November 1, 2018

The last week of a campaign is the longest week. Most of the polls have been completed. The final ads have been placed. The last lawn signs have been put into the ground (or pulled out by mischievous opponents). Cable TV is filled with inane chatter. And, the campaigns and the campaign committees are busy setting (spinning) expectations.

This year there's the added uncertainty and chaos spurred by President Trump in the waning hours of the campaign. 

It is why it is more important than ever in these last few days to focus on the fundamentals that will determine the outcome of this election.

The election is a referendum on Trump.

Every midterm is about the sitting president, even ones who are more traditional and less unorthodox than the one currently sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The better a president’s approval ratings, the better his party does in the midterms. The weaker his ratings, the more losses his party suffers.

This president has always wanted the election to be about him. And, in these final hours he's made sure to put the focus back on himself. He's ramped up the rhetoric on illegal immigration, ordered the military to the southern border and floated the idea about doing away with birthright citizenship with an executive order.

But, what's also been true about this president, is that the less he's front and center, the better his job approval rating. For example, what brought Trump’s job approval ratings out of the doldrums of 2017 — where he was averaging 38-39 percent — was the tax cut bill that passed Congress at the end of the year. The Kavanaugh vote helped lift Trump’s job approval ratings from a summer of non-stop bad news and self-inflicted wounds (the Putin-Helsinki press conference, the Bob Woodward book, the Cohen/Manifort trials).

What is worrying Republicans today, is that in this last week before the election the spotlight has moved from Trump’s strengths (he fulfilled his promises and got another conservative on the Supreme Court), to his biggest weaknesses (his temperament, his over-heated rhetoric and undisciplined tweeting). 

GOP strategists have told us that they are seeing slippage in Trump’s approval rating similar to the drop we saw this week in Gallup’s tracker (Trump dropped from 44 percent to 40 percent). This is why many of them are more worried about big losses in the House than they were just a week or ten days ago.

What we don't know today is whether the focus on immigration instead of the shooting deaths at the Pittsburgh synagogue help counter Trump's recent slide? Or will it only reinforce the frustrations and misgivings that many voters have about Trump's divisive politics? 

Intensity/Turnout

What creates wave elections is usually a big differential in turn-out. One party turns out. The other stays home. And, as such, the winning party picks up seats that they would never have been able to capture at a time of ‘normal’ turnout.

This year is different. Democratic enthusiasm is sky high. But, Republicans are energized too. The so-called ‘enthusiasm gap’ in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll went from Democrats +12 for most of 2018 to a smaller D+4 lead in October.

President Trump is also better liked by his base than recent presidents going into their midterm elections. The latest Gallup poll finds Trump with an 89 percent job approval rating among Republicans, which is higher than President Obama’s showing with Democrats at this point in 2010 (81 percent), or President George W. Bush’s with Republicans (85 percent) at this point in 2006.

Of course, intent to vote and actually voting are two different things. Just because Trump has retained the loyalty of his base doesn’t mean that they are also committed to showing up to vote. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Democrats more intensely negative about Trump (79 percent) than Republicans are intensely positive (65 percent).

For Democrats, the question is whether their least reliable mid-term voters — young voters and voters of color — show up. The early vote suggests they will, but many Democrats who are tracking this on the ground remain skeptical.

Intensity can also be measured by who has the most financial fire-power. On this score, Democrats are also dominating. A Republican source showed me the amount of money spent since July 1 on advertising in the most competitive 75+ House races. Democratic candidates have outspent GOP candidates almost 2-1 ($163M to $88M). And, the GOP outside groups haven’t been able to fill in the gaps. The three biggest GOP outside group funders — the Paul Ryan affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund, the NRCC independent expenditure (IE) and Trump SuperPAC, America First, have spent a combined $174.5M. But, the three biggest Democratic groups: the DCCC IE, House Majority PAC and the Michael Bloomberg SuperPAC Independence USA are not far behind at $156.6M.

Polarization Means Independents More Important Than Ever

This tweet from GOP pollster Glen Bolger sums up the essential challenge for Republicans in the swing seats that will determine House control: “It's clear that, in most places, Republicans have solved our September enthusiasm problem. What's not clear is whether we've solved our problem with Independent voters. And that will be the difference between winning and losing in close races.”

The most recent polling suggests that Republicans haven’t ‘solved’ their independent voter problem. The Marist/PBS poll showed Democrats leading among independents on the generic ballot by 10 points. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats leading the generic by 14 points. This is in line with the last three midterm wave elections (2006, 2010, and 2014), in which the winning party carried independents by 12 to 19 points.

How are the two parties trying to woo these independents in the closing days of the campaign? For Republicans, their message is focused almost exclusively on three things: Nancy Pelosi, taxes and ‘government-run/socialized health care.” Why? Among independent voters (according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey), Nancy Pelosi is 13 points more unpopular (-33) than Trump (-20).

For Democrats, it’s all about health care (the second most important issue to these voters in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) and the GOP incumbent’s attachment to ‘special interests” (‘changing how things work in Washington is another top issue for these voters). We are also seeing a number of closing ads from candidates that feature their commitment to solving problems (i.e., I’m not going to be a part of the partisan food fight in DC). It also serves as a contrast to the divisive language the president is using in these final days.

How Will We Know If It’s A Wave Or Not?

What is the difference between a blue wave and a ‘ripple’? Is it the total number of seats won? The percent of competitive seats carried?

Here’s how I will be determining the ‘waviness' of this election.

Of the 73 GOP-held seats the Cook Political Report rates as vulnerable, 35 of them — or 48 percent — are districts that were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and/or by President Obama in 2012. Winning most of those will get Democrats the majority.  But, it’s hard to call winning only in districts that a Democratic presidential nominee has already captured at least once a 'wave.' To me, a wave means that one party expands its reach into new territory — territory that hasn’t been won before. For example, if Democrats win a disproportionate share of those ‘already won’ districts AND pick up seats in districts where they’ve never won — like Georgia’s 7th held by GOP Rep. Rob Woodall or Washington’s 3rd CD held by Republican Rep. Jamie Herrera Butler — that constitutes a wave in my book.