Despite dismal numbers for President Obama, a public deeply pessimistic about the direction of the country, and a Senate battleground based almost solely in red states, Republicans aren’t running up the score in Senate races, even in deep red states. Many are asking: why hasn’t the bottom dropped out on Democrats yet? The answer is: it already did.
Since very early this cycle, both sides have conceded that 2014 will not be a “wave” election like we saw in 2006, 2008, or 2010. Voters gave Democrats the benefit of the doubt in 2006 and 2008 only to be disappointed by the overreach of Democrats on everything from Obamacare to the environment. In 2010, they gave Republicans a chance to right the ship of state. Today, they have found that the GOP is as inept as the party they threw out of power four years ago. This is an electorate that sees nothing but disappointment when it looks at either party.
So, while President Obama’s no-good-very-bad summer has kept his approval ratings low, the GOP has done nothing to repair its tarnished brand either. In a posting on its blog, the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies writes that while Obama’s approval rating among white women has dropped precipitously over the last year (it’s down to 35 percent from 50 percent in early 2013), “women continue to vote for the Democrat.” Among white women, writes pollster Nicole McCleskey, congressional Democrats approval rating is 45 percent to 41 percent for Republicans. “Falling numbers for the President alone,” writes McClesky, “will not move women into the GOP column.”
Also putting a damper on big swings in polling is the onslaught of early ad spending and our hyper-partisan electorate. This October-level of spending has helped to polarize the electorate earlier than ever. Republicans have gone with their candidate and Democrats to theirs, with few sitting on the sidelines. This helps to explain why you won’t see a big swing to GOP challengers this fall when Republican voters, who’d normally only have started to clue into the race, “come home” to the Republican nominee. And, while Republicans continue to hold an “enthusiasm advantage,” recent Pew polling shows that the gap is not nearly as large as it was in 2010; something that can also be attributed to early and heavy ad spending by Democrats. Moreover, polling in senate races is always less volatile than in the House where candidates are less well-known and defined.
There’s also the real possibility that public polling can over/underestimate the presence of a wave. In a recent piece on FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver wrote that since 2000, the average error rate for public polls taken in the last 21 days of a Senate race was five points. Of the nine races my colleague Jennifer Duffy has rated as Toss-Ups, all are within five points, six are within three points.
Meanwhile, compared with past wave elections, there are just as many seats in the “almost certain to flip” category. At this point in 2010, Jennifer Duffy rated three Democratic-held seats as likely to flip to the GOP (Arkansas, Indiana, and North Dakota), with seven more Democratic seats rated as Toss-Ups. Two years earlier, in late August of 2008, she listed three Republican-held seats that were likely to flip to Democrats (Virginia, Alaska, and New Mexico), with another five GOP seats listed as Toss-Ups. This year, she rates three Democratic-held seats as likely to flip to the GOP (Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia), with seven Democratic-held seats in Toss-Up.
The dirty little secret is that we “see” a wave on Election Night and not before. As the results come in, we start to see a very discernible pattern as the closest races break disproportionally to one party. In 2008, the GOP lost four out of the six closest races (66 percent). In 2010, in what was a “wave year” just two of the seven toss-up races went to Republicans, though public polling predicted that four of those seven (57 percent) would flip to the GOP. Terrible GOP candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck were the real culprits in the GOP underperformance that year. We are in a similar position today. If Republicans win five of those nine seats currently in Toss Up (or 55 percent), they win the Senate.
So, we should all stop waiting for that thunderbolt to descend from the sky that will declare a winner before November 4. Most important, Republicans don’t need a “wave” to win control of the Senate. They need to win just a little over half of the closest races.
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