Democrats have reopened a double-digit lead in the generic congressional ballot, as a cascade of White House controversies has pushed the economy off the front page.
Republicans closed the generic ballot gap on Democrats in January, raising hopes that the GOP could hang on to the House in November. But now Republicans have seen their gains almost completely wiped out, underscoring their concerns that the party could be in for a bruising midterm election battle this year.
A new CNN survey released Monday put the Democratic advantage in the congressional generic ballot at an eye-popping 16 points. The margin in the RealClearPolitics average has returned to nearly 10 points, after Republicans crept to within 7 points earlier this month.
In that time, the White House has been racked by a string of controversies, ranging from a senior official who resigned after his ex-wives accused him of abuse to allegations that President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE had affairs with an adult-film star and a Playboy model.
Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE’s probe has intensified. Trump’s former deputy campaign manager Richard Gates is cooperating with the investigation, and more than a dozen Russians have been indicted for allegedly interfering in the election in an effort to help Trump win.
Meanwhile, a debate over gun laws has gripped the nation, hobbling GOP efforts to keep the focus on their tax overhaul and the economy.
“It’s a very simple equation,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “When Republicans are talking about the tax bill and the economy, they are winning. When they are talking about or explaining anything else, they aren’t.”
Republicans had become bullish about their prospects after a string of polls from mid-February found that shifting voter sentiments in favor of the GOP’s tax-cut bill had boosted Trump’s job approval rating and helped the party close the gap in the generic ballot.
That trend came to a screeching halt this week, with new surveys showing a return to the blowout numbers that have had the GOP on edge.
The new polls have raised fresh concerns among Republicans that the party is headed for an electoral wipeout in the 2018 midterm elections.
When Democrats picked up 30 seats and seized control of the House during former President George W. Bush’s administration in 2006, the party entered Election Day with an 8-point advantage in the generic ballot.
In the 2010 midterm elections, when the GOP picked up 63 seats in the House and shrank the Democratic majority in the Senate to one vote, Republicans had a 7-point advantage.
Adding to GOP concerns, the party in power historically loses seats in a midterm election. Trump’s approval rating has sunk back to near its low point after rebounding briefly in January, threatening to drag down GOP candidates.
Republicans in the House have also been stung by retirements, stretching their campaign resources even thinner.
And Democrats have proven that they can translate grass-roots energy into electoral victories, winning several state-level seats in 2017, some of them in districts that the president carried by double-digits.
The Cook Political Report, a leading election handicapper, on Tuesday moved a closely watched March special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.” Trump won that district by 20 points in 2016.
“Democrats are clearly showing up in increased numbers to make their voice heard. Republicans? Not so much,” said former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye. “This looks like a mirror image of the Obama midterm problem, where enough of his base stayed home to cost Democrats the House and the Senate.”
Still, pollsters warn that the generic ballot is better as a gauge of the entire electorate’s mood than as a predictor of outcomes in individual races.
In the Senate, Democrats are defending 25 seats, while Republicans are only tasked with defending eight seats. Many of the GOP incumbents are running in states that Trump won handily in 2016, while several Democrats are running in states Trump won by double-digit margins.
Pollsters say not to read too deeply into generic ballot polling at this early stage, pointing to the extreme volatility in the polls in recent weeks.
Over the past month, polls have put the Democratic advantage everywhere from 2 points to 16 points.
Pollsters note that the industry is still working out the kinks from a disastrous 2016 cycle, when most experts failed to forecast Trump’s shocking victory.
Their methodologies will change between now and November, as will voter sentiment, which pollsters say is as volatile as it’s ever been.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “The electorate has been extremely unpredictable and we expect to see a lot of volatility going forward.”
Democrats could also fumble the advantages they have in 2018.
There are signs of intraparty conflict between the progressive grass roots and the establishment as the primary season kicks off.
A recent memo from the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA warned that the party would fail to capitalize on the favorable political atmosphere if they continue to focus on Trump’s day-to-day controversies, rather than come up with an economic message of their own.
“If you’re going to pick one issue that could offset this difficult political environment for Republicans, it’s the economy, jobs, taxes and wages,” said GOP pollster David Winston.
Some Republicans say they’re encouraged by Trump’s moves to energize the conservative base by moving electoral politics to the forefront.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, the president pleaded with conservatives to stay energized in 2018. This week, Trump announced a new manager for his 2020 campaign, and an early reelection run announcement is expected soon.
“The great danger any party in power has in the midterms is a depressed or complacent base, and the president is ensuring conservatives stay engaged on that front,” said Josh Holmes, the former chief of staff and campaign manager to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Biden clarifies any Russian movement into Ukraine 'is an invasion' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE (R-Ky.). “We know Democrats are engaged, but the president is capable of bringing that same intensity and level of enthusiasm to our side.”
Still, Republicans acknowledge they’ve been blown off course in recent weeks, leading to a downturn in the polls.
“The takeaway is clear: Republicans benefit politically from focusing on the positive impact tax reform is having on American jobs and the economy,” said Michael Steel, a senior aide to former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Stopping the next insurrection Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE (R-Ohio). “While they will continue to work on the American people’s other priorities this year, there needs to be a sustained, disciplined and ongoing effort to highlight the benefits of tax reform.”