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For the last couple of years, I've stressed that when it comes to campaign polling, it's more important to focus on the vote share each candidate is getting than it is to obsess about the margin that separates the two candidates. The fact that a candidate is 'ahead' of another candidate by a certain number of points is a poor metric for assessing the strength of that candidate's chances of winning a race. For example, if I told you that candidate X is leading candidate Y by 5 points, that sounds pretty impressive. But what if I tell you that that same candidate, a sitting incumbent, is getting 42 percent of the vote? That 'lead' looks much less imposing, doesn't it?
I was reminded of how important it is to keep this "vote share vs. the margin" framing in mind as I watched political Twitter react to two recent polls taken in the battleground states of Georgia and Pennsylvania.
The headline of the Georgia poll, conducted by Eastern Carolina University, was that GOP Gov. Kemp was leading Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams by 5-points but that the Senate race between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and GOP nominee Herschel Walker was tied. Looking at the race through that framing, you would think that Warnock is getting a higher percentage of the vote than Abrams; after all, she's losing, but he's still in the game. However, Abrams and Warnock are getting similar support; Abrams was at 45 percent, and Warnock at 46 percent of the vote. In other words, the 'margin' isn't telling us the full story.
What is important (and impressive) is that both Democrats are outperforming President Joe Biden's dismal job approval ratings by seven to eight points. However, to win in the fall, they need to win over even more of those Biden-disapprovers.
For his part, Walker just needs to get all those voters who already dislike Biden, to support him. Right now, he's not. For example, the cross-tabs of the ECU poll show that Warnock is getting almost all of the voters (94 percent) who approve of Biden. Walker, however, is only getting 81 percent of those who disapprove of Biden. It's easier to convince a voter who is unhappy with the president (and the current state of the country) to vote to change horses than it is to try to convince that voter that change is the bigger risk.
To be sure, Walker has a lot of political baggage that Warnock and Democrats will use to paint the former UGA football star as 'risky change.' But, given 40-year high levels of inflation and increased talk of a "Bear Market" and a looming recession, staying the course is likely to look like the riskier choice for many voters.
Now take a look at Pennsylvania. The top-line takeaway from the USA Today/Suffolk poll: Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is leading GOP nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz, by 9 points. On its face, that is great news for Democrats. Like his Democratic colleagues in Georgia, Fetterman is 'outperforming' President Biden's job approval rating by a significant margin (7 points). But, look under the hood and see the challenges ahead for Fetterman in turning his 46 percent vote share to 50 percent. For one, Fetterman has consolidated the Democratic vote (82 percent of Democrats are supporting the Lt. Gov). In other words, he already has support from the people inclined to support him in the first place. But Oz, who squeaked through a contentious primary, is getting just 76 percent of the GOP vote. How does Oz unify the base to support him? Well, he makes the race a referendum on Biden. Or, more specifically, makes it about being a check on Biden. When asked if they wanted their vote to "support the direction President Biden is leading the country" or to "change the direction President Biden is leading the nation," 50 percent of respondents — including 87 percent of Republicans — chose "change." Independent voters are also more open to the "change" message; 49 percent of independents picked change to just 14 percent who said they wanted to stay the course.
Fetterman, unlike Warnock, doesn't have the baggage of incumbency. That, plus the fact that the 6-foot-8 guy with tattoos and a goatee and doesn't look like a cookie-cutter politician, gives him credibility to run as an 'outsider.' A recent Fetterman TV ad called the Lt. Governor someone who has "looked different and been different his entire life..Now, the big guy is running for Senate to take on Washington." And, like Walker, Dr. Oz is a first-time candidate whom Democrats can label as a risky choice. But, Fetterman's ability to win will depend on convincing enough voters who want to see "a change in direction from the way Biden is leading the country" that Fetterman's independence is more than just cosmetic. Republicans, of course, are working hard to tie Fetterman to the national Democratic brand. A recent attack ad by the NRSC charges that "Fetterman admits he will always vote with Democrats. In this economy, that's the last thing we need."
Another simple, but effective rule of thumb, especially as we get close to the election, is to look at how close (or far) an incumbent is to 50 percent. For example, in 2014, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall were both in competitive re-election contests. The final RealClearPolitics average for Shaheen's vote share was 48.8 percent, while Udall was at 44 percent. Shaheen won with 51.6 of the vote, while Udall came up short at 46 percent. Getting from 48 or 49 percent to 50 percent is easier than trying to from 44-46 percent to 50 percent.
Ultimately, the challenge for Democratic candidates is that not only do they need to energize their voters, and overcome the challenging economic headwinds, but they have to convince a significant number of voters who don't think that Biden is up to the job of fixing the economy, to send a Democrat to Congress to do just that.