Everyone is talking about the “blue wave” in November. It’s the assumption that Democratic voters are so motivated and ready to vote against President Trump that Republicans shouldn’t even bother to show up. Back during the months of August and even into September, the “blue wave” was all-but-certain, and even most Republicans seemed to agree and begin bracing for the impact. A funny thing happened on the way to the election, however, and now the polling and data suggest that Democrats are, in fact, motivated, but so are Republicans. The best description I’ve seen is that if there is a “blue wave” coming, it will be joined by a “red undertow” which is bubbling under the surface. The media and the President have so effectively nationalized the 2018 midterms that voters of all stripes seem to be equally ready to cast their votes.
Voter Registration Numbers
We’ll start with this report from NBC News which finds that voter registration for both parties appears to be following historical trends, and nothing is standing out that would indicate a flood of new Democratic voters eager to join the wave:
Less than a month from Election Day, both parties have been focused on registering as many voters as possible and competing to see which holds the advantage in turning out their base. The turnout battle is the most important fight in winning control of Congress.
Including both those who registered for the first time and those who updated their registration form helps measure the number of people who have shown enthusiasm about the upcoming election.
Among the people who have registered to vote for the first time or who have updated their registration forms since the 2016 presidential elections, 40 percent are Democrats and 28 percent are Republicans. The remaining 32 percent are those who registered with a third party or are not registered with any party, as is common in states with open primary elections.
However, the number should not be misinterpreted — the percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans from 2016 to now is identical to registrations from November 2014 to November 2016.
The last sentence is key since it indicates that neither party seems to be excelling in this area and that things appear as though they are on pace to match previous years. This detracts from the “blue wave” narrative. This data alone doesn’t mean there won’t be a blue wave, but it means the wave won’t be coming from an onslaught of newly registered voters.
What does this party registration data look like state-to-state? NBC News has a chart for that:
Only in Florida, Montana, Nevada, and Texas are Democrats actually outpacing Republicans, but not by much, with the exception of Montana. Indiana and Tennessee have seen the opposite, where Republican voter registration is far outpacing Democrats. It must be noted that these are all Republican-leaning states where there are fewer Democratic voters to begin with.
Generic Ballot Polling
Voter registration is one thing to examine, but there is also the “generic ballot” polling which simply asks voters across the country whether they plan to vote Democrat or Republican in the upcoming midterm election. This poll question is fairly broad, since it doesn’t take into account specific candidates, but it’s an overall decent indicator of taking the temperature of voters before the Congressional elections.
CNBC provides a report on their most recent poll numbers which show Democrats leading Republicans by six points, which they say is nowhere near the number needed to produce a “blue wave” of epic proportions:
The latest CNBC All-America Economic Survey offers mixed signals, but leans against a wave Democratic election like that those that swept Republicans to power in 2010 and 2014.
The poll of 800 Americans across the country, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent, found a six-point Democratic lead on the question of who voters will choose in the November congressional elections. The 42 percent to 36 percent margin is not far from what pollsters would expect given the greater percentage of Democratic registered voters.
It’s noteworthy that this poll, for CNBC, was conducted in a bi-partisan manner, with a pollster from each political persuasion helping to administer the poll. So, what did each pollster make of the results as it relates to their party?
“A six point differential is not something that’s going to cause a big electoral wave,” said Micah Roberts, the Republican pollster on the CNBC poll, a partner Public Opinion Strategies. “Economic confidence that people have among a lot of groups is providing a buffer” for Republicans.
Jay Campbell, the Democratic pollster for the survey and a partner with Hart Research Associates, is skeptical of a wave for the Democrats, saying the six-point advantage is “not enough to suggest this is going to be a massive wave election a la 2010.” Campbell did add that the survey found a large 17 percent of undecided voters who will be critical to the outcome.
The CNBC report notes, however, that some polls have found an advantage for Democrats as high as 13 points on the generic ballot question, which would be more in line with a “wave” election as seen in 2010 or 2014. However, they also note that the RealClearPolitics average sits at a seven-point advantage for Democrats so the CNBC six-point result is right at the average.
Looking over the polling from the past month gives you the picture:
|RCP Average||10/1 – 10/16||—||48.7||41.1||Democrats +7.6|
|FOX News||10/13 – 10/16||841 LV||49||42||Democrats +7|
|Economist/YouGov||10/14 – 10/16||1273 RV||46||41||Democrats +5|
|Reuters/Ipsos||10/10 – 10/16||1194 LV||51||40||Democrats +11|
|ABC News/Wash Post||10/8 – 10/11||991 RV||53||42||Democrats +11|
|Rasmussen Reports||10/7 – 10/11||2500 LV||45||44||Democrats +1|
|CNBC||10/4 – 10/7||800 A||42||36||Democrats +6|
|CNN||10/4 – 10/7||739 LV||54||41||Democrats +13|
|Emerson||10/1 – 10/4||1000 RV||50||42||Democrats +8|
|NPR/PBS/Marist||10/1 – 10/1||996 RV||48||42||Democrats +6|
Given the vast difference from a +1 for Democrats to a +13, pollsters simply don’t know which voters will show up to vote in November. Couple this with party registration, and you have to question the “blue wave” narrative. Especially since CNBC points out that voters are giving high approval on the overall economy, a sentiment which has historically benefitted incumbents regardless of party. Remember: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Finally, beyond the numbers like polls and party registration, what are the opinion-makers saying? This piece, from Megan McArdle, in the Washington Post, caught my eye since it makes the case that Democrats may well be motivated, but Republicans seem to be building a wave of their own:
Republicans already faced a likely Democratic wave in the midterms, and standing by Kavanaugh would all but concede not only the House but also possibly the Senate.
Yet somehow he was confirmed. And his party’s luck is even more astonishing. Far from turning the Blue Wave into an Indigo Tsunami, the Kavanaugh fight seems to have produced a Red Undertow. As of this writing, that backwash looks strong enough to check Democratic advances in the Senate and maybe even gain a couple of seats. If Republicans are very lucky, they might even retain control of the House.
The GOP shouldn’t be too surprised at such turns given its hard schooling in 2016 about the limits of establishment expertise. But Democrats have so far avoided taking similar lessons.
Even suggesting a possibility where Democrats don’t win control of the House in November seems ludicrous, almost laughable by most accounts, yet here we are with that very scenario looking almost plausible. Republicans are still at a disadvantage, if even just by historical standards being the party in power, but stranger things have happened, like Donald Trump winning in 2016.
As McArdle’s article continues, Democrats are still waiting on the “prophecy” of a permanent majority to materialize following President Obama’s two landslide Presidential victories:
Democrats have been waiting for that wave to crest for a long time, at least since the 2002 publication of “The Emerging Democratic Majority” by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. That book’s modest thesis suggested that demographic trends would increase traditional Democratic constituencies while slowly shrinking the GOP’s base, as long as Democrats could find a way to hold their then-current coalition together.
By 2016, many saw that as prophecy: All they needed to do was wait for the GOP’s atavistic denizens to die off, leaving the country to those on the right side of history.
Yet salvation keeps failing to arrive. We now have the most diverse electorate in American history. If the strong version of the EDM thesis were correct, not even gerrymandering, voter suppression, and untimely FBI announcements would have handed Republicans enough power to tip the electoral college in their favor. The prophecy failed. And still, a whole lot of folks seem to be waiting for history to vindicate them.
By McArdle’s analysis, Democrats feel as though they should have already been winning more races around the country due in part to simple demographics. More young people are voting, and they’re voting Democrat. Older voters, who tend to vote Republican, are slowly dying. Therefore, the math would indicate that Republicans should be at a disadvantage with the Obama-coalition of young and minority voters rising up. However, that coalition didn’t last and wasn’t present in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Will that outcome change in 2018? McArdle doesn’t think so.
What about the election forecasters, like FiveThirtyEight, where analysts like Nate Silver take in all the data and spit out probabilities of events occurring based purely on the numbers. The Washington Post recently interviewed Silver, and his take on the 2018 midterms will give Democrats heartburn:
“I get nervous about how people overstate things” he [Silver] told me.
That, for example, it’s “all but inevitable” that Democrats will win control of the House of Representatives or that there’s really no way Republicans will lose the Senate.
“Saying it’s all but inevitable should signal it’s at 98 percent, not 80 percent,” which is the reality at the moment, he said.
While it’s quite probable — and has become slightly more likely — that we’ll see a split decision in Congress, there’s a solid chance it doesn’t go that way.
There’s actually a 40 percent chance that both houses of Congress will end up in the hands of one party, Silver said.
That’s partly because, in each case, there’s about a 1-in-5 chance that the less likely outcome will happen: That Republicans will retain the House or that Democrats will win the Senate.
In layman’s terms, the numbers don’t give a conclusive result as to what is going to happen in November. The entire battle for the House remains a toss-up, albeit with a historical lean toward Democrats. Silver is cautious, but that’s because he only goes by the numbers, and the numbers are mixed right now across the country. That makes it hard to argue that a “blue wave” is coming when the numbers don’t seem to indicate that.
The real answer is that nobody knows what’s going to happen in November, but the talk of an inevitable “blue wave” doesn’t seem to pass the smell test. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a blue wave, but it does mean that the data and polling simply don’t support that narrative at the moment. The final arbiter will be the voters on Election Day, so we can sit back and let them decide the outcome without trying to over-prognosticate along the way.