Last January, I wrote that circumstances pointed to the prospect of an electoral wave large enough to propel Democrats back to power in November. Last week, I offered three possibilities for how the election might turn out, each fraught with peril but some more dangerous than others. Today, I’d like to put these two sets of observations together and consider where things stand 46 days before the election (and 47 days before the start of the 2020 presidential campaign).
In January, we noted how fundraising figures, candidate recruitment, measures of interest in the campaign, off-year election results and presidential approval ratings collectively created a set of necessary (but hardly sufficient) conditions for a Democratic wave election. None of this has changed in the intervening eight months.
- Fundraising: Through the second quarter of 2018, Democrats continued to pummel their Republican challengers, as 56 Republican House house incumbents raised less money than their opponents. By comparison, in the Republican wave election of 2010, 44 incumbent Democrats raised less than their challengers. Democrats also significantly outraised their opponents in nine battleground senate races. Three of the most vulnerable senate Democrats—Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Jon Tester of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota—raised more money than any senate candidate in their respective states in the past 20 years.
- Candidate Recruitment: Early in the year, it was evident that Democratic candidate recruitment was off the charts, led by an unprecedented number of women who were inspired by Trump’s victory to run for office. More than half these candidates won their primaries, furthering the political energy evident since the Women’s March on the first day of the Trump administration. Female Republican candidates did not perform as well in their primaries, and a yawning double-digit gender gap favoring Democrats has emerged, bolstering claims that women will be at the forefront of a Democratic resurgence.
- Interest in the Campaign: There has been a lot of polling on voter enthusiasm. It reliably shows Democrats with an edge, and Trump is the reason why. The Associated Press reported last week that a Republican pollster warned the White House about a massive enthusiasm gap between Democrats desperate to vote against the president’s party and Republicans who don’t believe anything important is at risk this year. The reason? Trump keeps telling his supporters that reports of an impending blue wave are fake news.
- Off-Year Elections: While care needs to be taken not to conclude too much from special elections, the trend of Democratic over-performance is unmistakable and continues unabated since January. These contests tend to be low-turnout affairs, and as such they can be a good measure of enthusiasm. The same is true of primary turnout, where Democrats experienced a massive surge in their vote—a 78% increase over the last midterm election, compared with a 23% increase among Republicans.
- Presidential Approval: Donald Trump’s approval rating has been bad for so long that it almost seems like a positive thing when it’s above 40 percent. In reality, he remains historically unpopular. And unpopular presidents are a drag on their party during midterm elections.
These indicators point to the continued development of a wave, and they are reinforced by a media narrative suggesting a wave of some magnitude may now be inevitable. In January, conventional wisdom viewed a Democratic House takeover as a high hurdle given how effectively Republicans had gerrymandered the House map in multiple states. It is now considered a strong likelihood. In January, you would have had trouble finding a serious analyst who believed the senate was in play, because the luck of the calendar gives Democrats zero easy pick-ups while forcing them to defend multiple incumbents in deep red territory. Although still a long shot, Democratic control of the senate is no longer considered a crazy idea.
This is exactly how you would expect a wave election to develop. If it continues to build in the weeks ahead, we should expect to see more Republican seats in play. As we get closer to Election Day, we will have a much better sense of whether a wave is about to crash and how big it will be if it does. Right now, the safe bet is that Republicans are at grave risk of losing some portion of their power in Washington and in the states, while the prospect for a total wipeout remains on the table.
With less than seven weeks to go, the election is no longer a hypothetical. Early voting starts today in Minnesota and South Dakota. We will know a lot more very soon.