The giddy optimism of late last year that had Democratic leaders salivating at what many saw as a coming midterm “blue wave” that would decimate their opponents, give them control of both the House and Senate, and leave Donald Trump a toothless lame duck who would be lucky to escape impeachment even before voters would have a chance to boot him out in 2020, has vanished.
Those who rely on polls as reliable predictors of the future are on dangerous ground and today’s poll figures may prove as illusory as those that led Mr. Trump’s enemies to believe they were on the right track, but the stark differences of how Americans felt then and now are telling.
Late last year, when asked if the country was headed in the right or wrong direction, naysayers enjoyed a 30- to 40-point advantage over the more optimistic among us. In fact, a Reuters poll taken in October found but 24 percent of us believed we were headed in the right direction with 64 percent saying we were on the wrong track. This month, those 40 points have dwindled to 13. The president and his team might dream of a day when more people will believe the direction he is headed is right, but given where they were last these numbers represent a huge turnaround.
The same can be said for so-called congressional “generic ballot.” Pollsters have for decades been asking whether voters are inclined to vote for a Democrat or a Republican for Congress in upcoming elections. The results can’t be used to predict individual races, but give a pretty good idea of whether one party or the other will fare well in the election. The nature of the electorate and its distribution means that once Republicans get within four points or so on the generic ballot, the parties are playing on what might be termed a level playing field with the ultimate outcome decided by candidates and their campaigns rather than national waves or trends.
Last year, however, the generic numbers could easily lead one to conclude that the Republican Party was imploding in a way that would justify Democratic giddiness. Democrats in various polls enjoyed a 13- to 18-point advantage over Republicans when the generic question was asked, and strategists agreed that if that advantage persisted Republicans in Congress had best start looking for other lines of work and many began doing just that. Many Republican incumbents fearing the inevitable announced their retirement, and attractive prospective candidates realizing that in politics timing can be everything decided to keep their day jobs.
But that, as they say, was then. Today’s generic ballot results are quite different. The RealClearPolitics average now gives the Democrats a seven-point advantage. That’s a nice lead, but hardly predictive of a wave election and some recent polls suggest their generic advantage may have fallen to four or five points. Democrats still have a slight advantage and have been helped by Republican congressional retirements and a bumper crop of rookie Democratic candidates sensing that this might be their year, but the question of whether Nancy Pelosi or her successor will be handed the House Speaker’s gavel in January remains open.
Democrats were convinced last year that their wave would continue to build because it was being fueled by concerns about the performance of Donald Trump as president. They were convinced then and continue to believe that Mr. Trump is a dangerous and incompetent man who won on a fluke or somehow with Russian support actually stole the election.
His approval numbers last year were awful. The public may have rejected his opponent, but there was some buyers’ remorse and real fear that Mr. Trump might not be up to the job with which they entrusted him, and it seemed that many might be looking forward to the midterm elections as a chance to render him impotent.
Those numbers too have changed. Mr. Trump is hardly wildly popular, but then neither was his predecessor. We live in an ideologically divided country, so the sorts of approval numbers a president might have won a generation ago are hard to imagine in today’s world. Still, the polls are beginning to look better and better for Mr. Trump. Just last week, the Gallup organization found that 48 percent now approve the way he’s handling his job with 52 percent disapproving.
In today’s political climate those are pretty good numbers, especially when compared with last year’s Reuters poll finding a dismal 36 percent approval combined with 60 percent disapproval.
What all this tells us is that one should be cautious in predicting the future from poll data. The Democrats could still win control of the House in November. The president could screw things up or the economy could collapse or a foreign policy disaster could redound to the benefit of the Democrats, but those developments are as hard to predict as their prediction that the public would never warm up to Mr. Trump and his policies.
So if the Democrats are to win, they’re going to have to do it in the old-fashioned way. They are going to have to fight it out district by district on the issues as will the Republicans they want to replace, and that’s going to prove far more difficult than they believed a few short months ago.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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