What can we anticipate from the midterm elections tomorrow? To put it briefly, we should expect Republican advances based only on historical precedent. Barring a very amazing turn of events, that result is already inevitable.
The real question is how huge the wave will be, not whether the GOP will perform better than the incumbent Democrats. If Democratic turnout is higher than anticipated, Republican voters are complacent, and independents don’t decisively break with the opposition party, it may not have the desired impact.
It might also develop into a big wave, giving Republicans a tight victory in the Senate and strong control of the House. Or it might be one of the famous blunders that history will remember for a long time. How should we evaluate the chance of each of these potential outcomes? Let’s examine four elements:
First, polling by race. If this served as our only benchmark, Democrats could have a reasonable chance of having a passable evening. Democrats are still essentially deadlocked (slightly ahead or behind) in a large number of the crucial races around the nation, while Republicans are polling only “so-so” in many of them. During wave years, independents and late-deciders frequently vote in the same direction, creating a domino effect that favors one party. If that occurs, much of the not-terrible polling in these races could turn out to be false, and the fact that many of these Democrats are stuck in the mid- to high-forties may be a worrying indicator for them. But occasionally, tendencies are defied.
While several vulnerable Democrats are polling considerably ahead of President Biden’s local popularity rating, actual Republican candidates are trailing far behind the GOP generic ballot lead in many of these races. They can greatly reduce the harm if they can defy political gravity in this way. For what it’s worth, both left- and right-leaning pollsters have recently expressed the opinion that GOP support may have been underestimated in head-to-head surveys. However, polling errors may go in the opposite direction.
Second, while overall national polling has been favorable for the GOP, it hasn’t been outstanding. Real Clear Politics reports that as of late Sunday, Republicans held an average lead of 2.5 points on the generic ballot for 2022. Note that any advantage the Republicans have on this statistic is generally positive for the party. Prior to election day in 2020, Democrats held a lead of over seven points on this question.
Less than half of that margin separated them in the “popular” vote for the House, and Republicans added double-digit seats as a result. A lead in the low single digits isn’t indicative of a significant wave like we saw in 2010, for example, but the GOP being ahead this time is still good news for them. In summary, the national polling currently indicates that the opposition party will have a good-to-very excellent night and offers more encouraging information than the more precise results in many of the closely followed individual races.
The cycle’s purported “fundamentals” are the third item on the list. This point is so crucial that I keep returning to it. Say we knew the following but did not have access to any specific polls at all: It is a new president’s first midterm election. All of Washington is under the power of the president. The president is not well-liked. Independents have a terrible attitude. Economic discontent is widespread (and I do mean high). On the most important topics, as determined by the electorate, the opposition party dominates.
We may reasonably safely draw the conclusion that the out-of-power party would be strongly favored to win a sizable victory based on those data alone. In a vacuum, that is true, and in real life, I anticipate it will be true as well. Fundamentals are crucial and almost always are. Please refer to my post from last week for more information on what a “substantial victory” may entail and how to interpret the data when they are reported.
The expert forecasts and, probably more tellingly, the financial data come last. The “experts” who study this material for a living are professional prognosticators. Sometimes they’re wrong, like in 2016 (generally) and 2020 (they expected Democrats to expand their House majority, then Republicans held every seat they controlled, swept the toss-up races, and gained more than a dozen seats). But because it’s their company, they make a lot of effort to succeed.
If they fall short, especially if they do so poorly, it’s embarrassing. Recent weeks have seen almost all of the movement in the race ratings go in favor of the Republicans, with several very blue seats becoming much less solidly blue in the forecasts. Like the rest of us, the individuals who evaluate these ratings have access to public polling, but they also have access to internal data and conversations that are held in confidence. In the later stages of the campaign, they have moved the map firmly to the right due to this combination. We’ve also observed similar tendencies in the movement of financial resources, with Democrats allocating funds to defend safe seats and Republicans seeking to enlarge the map by making bold advances into more Democratic territory.
Those are indications of a strong opposition and a triage-minded ruling party.