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The Democratic wave is receding? Not really

albert hunt

Albert Hunt

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Monday, April 23, 2018

Two surveys popped up this week that seem to show improved prospects for Republican House candidates this November. Disregard them!

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Monday showed that 47 percent of registered voters prefer the Democratic candidate in their district, as against 43 percent who favor the Republican. The gap was about twice as large at the beginning of the year.

In a Marist Poll that came out Wednesday, voters preferred a Democratic House candidate by a five-percentage-point margin, unchanged from last month.

That kind of mid-sized advantage for Democrats might not be enough to power their quest to regain control of the House, for which they will need to pick up two-dozen seats now held by Republicans.

But Peter Hart, who conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which shows a seven-point Democratic advantage, still thinks the blue wave that Democrats hope for is coming.

A Democrat not given to partisan exuberance, Hart cites a more important factor than the generic-preference questions that pollsters are asking now: intensity. Two-thirds of Democrats in his survey expressed a strong interest in this year's election vs. 49 percent of Republicans, exactly the intensity advantage Republicans had in 2010, when they won back the House in a landslide.

Other positive indicators for Democrats include the near-record number of congressional Republican retirements. Money is also pouring in. In two notable upset victories, an Alabama Senate election in December and a March Pennsylvania House contest, the Democratic winners raised more money than they spent. The Political Hotline reported this week that at least one challenger has outraised more than 40 Republican incumbents. That's unusual.

Most important is to look at what voters already are doing this year at the state and local level. Mark Gersh, a seasoned Democratic strategist with encyclopedic knowledge of political geography, has analyzed the six state-legislative districts that flipped this year from Republicans to Democrats. None have flipped the other way in 2018.

Two are heavily rural, a Wisconsin state senate district and a Missouri house seat. In Wisconsin, the victorious Democrat ran 17 percentage points ahead of Hillary Clinton's 2016 performance in that district and eight points ahead of Barack Obama four years before. That improvement was almost identical in the Missouri venue.

This led the ever cautious Gersh, in a memo, to suggest it's "another signal that Midwestern rural and small-town districts may be more marginal" for Republicans "than previously thought."

There also was a huge Democratic victory in a Kentucky state house race in February, with the winner more than doubling the Clinton and Obama tallies there.

On the other hand, the Democratic winner of a Connecticut contest in February barely improved on Clinton's victory margin in the district and ran behind Obama's. This could presage trouble for Democrats in that state, where the party's incumbent governor is unpopular.

On balance, though, there are still lots of good reasons for Democratic optimism. In Florida, where a half-dozen U.S. House seats, a Senate seat and the governor's office are in play this fall, a Democrat scored a big February win in a Republican-held statehouse seat in Sarasota, running well ahead of Obama and Clinton. With the huge turnout, Gersh concluded, "This race is a significant trend." He perceived the same trend in a New Hampshire victory earlier in the year, noting that "the New Hampshire House typically changes hands when a moderate-high wave is present."

Trump's persistent unpopularity, almost a half-year after Republicans passed a tax-cut bill and amid a strong economy, may drag down Republicans in other competitive races this year. To be sure, the president still can energize a dispirited base. In both the special Alabama Senate race last December and the special Pennsylvania congressional contest, election-eve appearances by Trump boosted the Republican turnout, though not by enough to win.

But there are only so many election-eve appearances he can make in the fall, and only so many places he's likely to help.

Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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