This past May, I wrote a piece positing that the generic Congressional vote averages from surveys taken roughly until Memorial Day of the year preceding an election are not reliable indicators of a party’s performance in that election. Seven months later – and now less than 11 months from Election Day – I thought it would be appropriate to attempt to read the 2018 tea leaves with an eye toward the likelihood of a Democratic wave.
The table below provides the Real Clear Politics (RCP) averages from surveys taken up to eighteen months out from Election Day; the RCP averages from surveys taken just in December of the preceding year; and the final results, that is, each party’s national vote share in that particular election.
In May, I wrote, “To flip the House, Democrats need to meet or exceed their current +7 advantage on the generic ballot.” Less than one year out, Democrats have – at least for now – exceeded their +7 advantage on the generic ballot. What’s more, generic ballot polling averages from surveys conducted in December tend to be more reliable indicators of the actual outcome. Take, for instance, the 2010 averages from surveys taken up to Memorial Day 2009: Democrats enjoyed a +4 lead on the generic ballot – a far cry from the Republican wipeout to come in November 2010. December 2009 surveys, however, suggest a trend toward Republicans that would be confirmed by those results. Similarly, the Republican advantage eighteen months out from the 2012 election dissipated by December of 2011, again suggesting a trend toward Democrats that would be borne out in November. The 2014 data tell a similar story.
If one were to apply this theory to the 2018 midterm elections, at first glance one might grimace at Republican prospects. But trends are trends until they change, as POS partner Glen Bolger often notes. As I wrote back in May, outside factors have a tremendous influence on the outcomes of elections, particularly in midterm cycles – think Mark Foley, Hurricane Katrina, angst over the war in Iraq, Obamacare’s implementation, and more. And, importantly, Republicans’ structural advantage in the House of Representatives – their ability to win more seats than their national vote share would suggest (also referenced in my May blog post) – could prove a buttress to their majority.
The X factor this cycle could prove to be twofold: President Trump’s job approval rating and the potential economic boost of the GOP tax plan – and the interplay between the two. Trump’s approval rating, according to the RCP average, stands at 38% approve/57% disapprove. However, economic confidence is on the rise. According to a POS-Hart CNBC survey released on December 18, the Trump economy has boosted voters’ optimism: for instance, in an October 2016 track, just 25% of respondents said the state of the economy was excellent or good. Today, that number has doubled to 51%. Similarly, 41% now say the economy will get better over the next year, up 16 points from the 25% who said so in October 2016. This increased optimism could positively impact Trump’s job rating. Indeed, the same CNBC survey registered a significant improvement in the president’s job approval rating, pegging it at 42% approve/49% disapprove.
Whether economic confidence and Trump’s approval rating will continue to improve – and whether we can expect the generic Republican vote to be the beneficiary of this increased optimism – is a question on which Congressional Republicans’ fortunes could hinge.