2018 midterm success hinges on Democratic determination — and wild cards

With less than six months to go before the 2018 midterms — and as more states hold primaries to see who will face off in the fall — it’s time to check in with various predictions about which candidates and political parties will wind up on top. It’s also time to look at other factors that could upend all conventional wisdom about midterm elections.

Pundits and pollsters constantly pontificate about and measure how voters feel. How likely they are to vote in November. How likely the House and/or Senate are to flip. Which politicians—of either party—won’t have a job come January.

Polls breathlessly report any tiny tick of change, whether it’s Donald Trump’s approval rating or the gap in the generic congressional ballot measurement. The average difference in the generic congressional ballot race has been roughly seven or eight points for months, tipping to the Democrats, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, which updates its aggregate polls daily.

Yet any tightening generates sound-the-alarm headlines, casting doubt on good results for Team Blue in November. A new CNN poll, for instance, proclaims that Democrats’ advantage is “nearly gone” (actually, it’s down to three points in the poll). By the next week, the gap may widen again by a bit. Then the headlines will proclaim that it must be because too many people hate Trump and Republicans are doomed once more.

More important than slight shifts in weekly polling are the ongoing measurements of voter enthusiasm. Traditionally, Republicans, with a higher preponderance of older (and hence more reliable) voters, perform better in midterm elections. FiveThirtyEight.com reports that the average GOP advantage in midterms since 1978 has been about three percentage points, with obvious swings back and forth, depending on which party holds the presidency. In 2018, just about every poll notes an enthusiasm gap against Republicans.

Enthusiasm breeds more enthusiasm. Voters who are enthusiastic about a candidate are more likely to talk to their friends, neighbors, relatives, and co-workers about voting. They’re more likely to spread news through social media and volunteer for campaigns.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that two-thirds of Democrats have a high level of interest in voting on Nov. 6, while only half of Republicans do. This poll also shows how the enthusiasm gap is widening; earlier polls showed voters of both parties roughly even in their intentions to vote.

Interestingly, the numbers of those with a high interest in voting (66 percent Democratic, 49 percent Republican) are identical to the poll numbers in 2010. Only then the numbers were reversed: 66 percent of Republicans had a high interest in voting, compared with 49 percent of Democrats. And we all remember what happened then: Democrats took “a shellacking,” as President Obama famously said.

Given restrictive voting laws, gerrymandered districts, and a lopsided Senate electoral picture (with 26 seats up in November held by Democrats versus only eight held by Republicans), a shellacking is likely too much to hope for. But a light coat of varnish would be just fine.

Here are some other factors that could affect midterm outcomes. In 2016, many votes were cast with a racist, misogynist, and “throw-the-bums-out” mentality. This year, there are issues and circumstances that could cause conventional wisdom and normal predictions to be thrown out the window. Heck, they might as well be thrown from the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Growing generational differences. The latest findings from the Pew Research Center show that Millennials strongly favor Democrats over Republicans, although a plurality of them identify as independents.

By greater than two-to-one (62% to 29%), more Millennial voters say, if the election were held today, they would vote for the Democrat in their district or lean toward the Democrat than prefer the Republican candidate. … Millennial registered voters support the Democrat by a wider margin than in the past.

Older generations of voters, according to Pew, are closer in their voting preferences. Gen-Xers favor Democrats by five points, baby boomers are roughly equal in their partisan leanings, and those in the older “silent” generation tip toward Republicans by nearly 10 points.

And for those—especially polling outfits—who say that younger voters don’t show up in non-presidential years, look no further than young voter turnout in Virginia in 2017. In 2010, only 21 percent of those 18-22 voted in the Commonwealth. In 2014, that same figure was 17 percent.

In 2017, that figure for that same demographic group jumped to 34 percent.

Women voters—and women candidates. We already know that Trump’s support among women is dropping, down to 35 percent in one poll (the gender gap between men and women voters is being described as the “Stormy Effect”). We also know that attitudes toward Trump are a factor in the record numbers of women running for office at all levels—the latest numbers from Emily’s List show that 36,000 women approached the group for electoral help in 2018, compared with 920 in 2016. Those numbers include 309 women running for the House, 29 running for the Senate, and 40 women running for governor. And those numbers could still grow—some states still have not reached filing deadlines. According to an Emily’s List news release:

Nationally, campaign operatives say they cannot name a single state that does not have a record number of women running for state legislatures, and female candidates alone could flip party control of at least seven legislative chambers. The stage is set for a historic year for female political power at a time when state governments are filling the power vacuum left by a feuding Congress.

The candidates include teachers, businesswomen, military veterans, and lawyers. Some are single mothers, and many are first-time candidates. Some have been inspired by the #MeToo movement, which has unleashed an outpouring of complaints from female legislators, lobbyists and staffers of sexual harassment, abuse and toxic work environments in America’s statehouses. Some want to focus more on health and family issues they believe legislatures are ignoring. They are Democrats, Republicans, and independents, representing a wide array of views on issues.

The women share one mission: to break up the old boys’ clubs they see in the nation’s statehouses and bring in more female perspectives.

By the way, these women are winning. Bigly. According to an analysis by Politico:

There were 20 open Democratic House primaries with women on the ballot Tuesday night, and voters selected a female nominee in 17 of them.

It’s a sharp turnaround from past years, when female Democrats faced big hurdles in trying to win support from voters. A good number of the primary winners Tuesday night are running in heavily Republican seats with little chance of winning general elections. But they are still part of an important trend: Evidence is building that Democratic voters are tilting toward supporting women this year.

Note to Politico: Those women might be running in heavily Republican districts, but counting them out is a mistake. Just ask some of the Democrats—many of them women—who have flipped some 40 seats in special elections since 2016. This could easily be another “Year of the Woman,” but even more successful than 1992.

Gun safety will be an issue this fall. The National Rifle Association may have loved having both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at its recent convention, but the momentum is still on the side of those favoring common-sense gun safety laws, including universal background checks; “red flag” laws allowing officials to take guns from those who pose a danger to themselves or others when officials are alerted by families or other members of the public; and bans on bump stocks, high-capacity magazines, and military-style assault weapons. Support for these solutions has reached record highs. Publicity about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, may have ebbed, but the students’ efforts have not, as they work for widespread voter registration of young, first-time voters with groups such as HeadCount, which pushes voter registration at music concerts.

According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution:

Republican intransigence on guns may represent an example of a policy that helped them in the past but will hurt them in the future. Most public opinion surveys show overwhelming majorities in favor of gun action. A February 2018 survey by Quinnipiac University found that young people between 18 and 34 supported the Democrat’s position on gun violence by 62 to 27 percent. The GOP can ignore that message at its own peril.

A news release from the gun safety group Giffords offered some more chilling news for Republicans from polls about guns and voting:

  • Gun violence prevention is the top issue among young people in deciding who to vote for in the 2018 midterm elections.
  • 37 percent of Americans under 30 indicate they will “definitely be voting in the upcoming midterms.”

For polling organizations who use historical voting data as significant weighting factors to develop election predictions: It might be time to update your models.

Originally posted on Daily Kos, May 13, 2018.

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