Looking at all of the public polling rolling in and hearing about a great deal of private surveys, it’s hard not to conclude that this election still looks horrific for Republican candidates. Among those in competitive states and districts, the question is less who will lose, but who will survive?
If I were a Republican on the ballot this fall in a state or district that Trump either lost or won by single digits, I would be worried that he is going down—and could take me down with him. Independents continue to shift away from Republican incumbents in every corner, in nearly every kind of competitive district. As one Republican pollster put it to me on Thursday, “We are getting our ass kicked with independents.”
For Republicans who need any appreciable amount of support from independent voters to get over the finish line, November is going to be a heavy lift. Political pros on both sides of the aisle are seeing little good news for Republicans, though one GOP pollster wrote in an email, “I have seen slight (very slight) improvement in the data in the last week.” The qualification and comment in the parenthesis was the campaign consultant’s, not mine.
There is some disagreement about the cause of the Republicans’ decline. The Trump campaign argues that fewer Republicans are making it past the likely-voter screens in polls, but at least one Democratic pollster argued that the problem is that fewer voters identify as Republicans. Probably in anticipation of a surge in turnout, one GOP pollster said they screened almost no one out, though it should be noted that most political pollsters are sampling off of voter files, so they still know who is registered and how often that person votes.
Either way, Republicans are getting clobbered with independents. The assessments end up in the same place. The only differences are in how to read the problem. One GOP campaign consultant suggested that the percentage of voters not just disapproving, but strongly disapproving of Trump’s overall performance is the best indicator—that "somewhat disapproving" left slight ground for someone to still come down his way. National polls show roughly 50 percent strongly disapprove of the president’s performance, with somewhat disapproving in the mid-single digits. Of course, winning all of the somewhat-disapproving voters would be a bit unrealistic.
A set of polls of register voters released this week—one Monmouth University poll of Iowa released Wednesday, and three Quinnipiac University polls of Kentucky, Maine, and South Carolina released Thursday—reveal the magnitude of the problem for Republicans.
Trump won Iowa in 2016 by over 9 points, 51 to 42 percent (the difference is because of rounding); now, according to the Monmouth poll, he leads Joe Biden among registered voters by just 3 points, 48 to 45 percent. On the Senate ballot, Republican Joni Ernst led Democrat Theresa Greenfield 48 to 45 percent as well. Under-performing four years ago by 6 points is troubling, and so is being an incumbent who’s getting less than 50 percent of the vote in a year in which the political winds are blowing against you, with the additional understanding that both undecided voters and independents tend to break away from incumbents. It’s also worth noting that 45 percent of respondents had either a very favorable (26 percent) or somewhat favorable (19 percent) view of Trump, while 50 percent had either a somewhat unfavorable (5 percent) or very unfavorable (45 percent) view. I’m not predicting that Trump and Ernst will lose Iowa, but you should not blink an eye in surprise if either or both do.
Trump won Kentucky in 2016 by just under 30 points, 63 to 33 percent, but leads Biden by just 9 points, 50 to 41 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll. His level of support virtually mirrored his approval rating in the state (49 percent) and his personal favorable rating (48 percent). Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine F-18 fighter pilot in both Afghanistan and Iraq, by 5 points, 49 to 45 percent. McConnell’s approval rating of 46 percent, with 48 percent disapproving, means McConnell is one of the few Republicans who is underwater (his disapproval rating is higher than his approval rating) and has a slightly lower approval rating than the President yet still remains ahead of a challenger. McConnell remains the favorite but doesn’t have a huge margin for error.
Four years ago, Trump lost Maine by just under 3 points, 48 to 45 percent. This year, according to Quinnipiac, he trails Biden by 15 points, 52 to 37 percent. Trump’s 37 percent is exactly the same as his approval rating and a point higher than his favorable rating. When the top of your ticket is 15 points behind, that is never good news for an incumbent, which could explain why four-term Sen. Susan Collins trails state House Speaker Sara Gideon by 4 points, 47 to 43 percent. Collins’s share of the vote also happens to be the same as her approval rating. Another 52 percent disapprove of Collins’s performance, the same percentage that said they were supporting Biden in the presidential race. Sixty-one percent have an unfavorable view of Trump (36 percent favorable), and Collins has a 42 percent favorable rating (49 percent unfavorable).
These numbers are not outliers. They are reasonably close to private polling in the race. At this point, it would be a real upset for Collins to win reelection.
Trump won South Carolina in 2016 by just over 14 points, 55 to 41 percent, and leads Biden by 9 points, 50 to 41 percent. Trump’s approval rating is just 49 percent with a 47 percent disapproval, and 46 percent personal favorable with 47 percent unfavorable. Democratic nominee Jaime Harrison, a 44-year old graduate of Yale College and Georgetown Law School, is running dead even with three-term incumbent Lindsey Graham, who has a 43 percent approval rating (47 percent disapproval) and a 41 percent favorable rating (45 percent unfavorable). It’s pretty clear that the partisanship of the state and Trump running 6 points ahead are contributing factors in keeping Graham running even. Part of his problem appears to be his rather sudden transition from being the late John McCain’s best friend and closest ally in the Senate to now being arguably Trump’s best buddy in the chamber, a stark comparison given the animosity between Trump and McCain.
Of course, things can turn around in the remaining 89 days until the election, although some who are voting by mail will get their ballots in just a month, and perhaps 70 percent of voters are likely to cast their ballots before Election Day, either by mail or in-person early voting.
Automobile side-view mirrors have the disclaimer, “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.” That could also be said about this election: It’s closer than it appears.