Weekly Midterm Update: Obama Ties Himself Around Dem Candidates’ Necks

Chris Wilson CEO, WPA Opinion Research
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The great thing about elections is that, no matter what else happens, the days on the calendar continue to move and, eventually, we come to the end.

Because we’re pollsters and it’s October, I’ll point out you could say the same about life.

This week was finally the week that, in a pretty much global way, President Obama re-emerged as the issue in many of the key races across the country.

The most incomprehensible and unpredictable president we’ve ever seen managed to give Republicans the perfect sound bite just two weeks ago.

Then this week he even managed to double (or triple?) down on it.

The result is just enough ammo for Republicans across the country to make their closing pitch precisely where they’ve wanted to be all along: a referendum on a hugely unpopular President.

Obama’s policies are on the ballot

The gift giving began with his speech earlier this month at Northwestern University.  Obama opened his mouth and uttered this gem: “I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle is pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”

Then, as if he hadn’t quite written all of the Republican ad copy yet, Obama followed that up yesterday by saying of Democrats running for re-election in Red states who have been avoiding him: “The bottom line is, though, these are all folks who vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress,” and, “these are folks who are strong allies and supporters of me, and I tell them, you know what, you do what you need to do to win.”

If you were listening closely yesterday, you heard hundreds of Democratic operatives in Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Alaska and others cry out in terror.

Sometimes it’s all about just showing up

With early voting in full swing, we’re starting to get a limited feel for trends in which voters might actually be showing up and which might be staying home.

Be sure, we take these reports with a large grain of salt and won’t be recommending clients only prepare victory speeches based on them.

In 2012, Republicans managed to tell a compelling story about the early vote trends, only to see the Democrats deliver their vote later in the process and on election day.

With the caveat that there’s as much probability that anything we see in early voting may just be votes shifting. Some may vote earlier, later, or on election day. And some may be real shifts in the electorate.

That understood, here are some interesting notes (citation is appropriate here, almost all of this data is taken from Michael McDonald’s invaluable electproject.org site which provides almost anything you could possibly want to know about voter turnout in this country):

  • In Iowa, Republicans historically have trailed Democrats in early ballot returns.
    • The GOP still trails, but the gap is closer that it was even in 2010.
    • In 2010, Republicans trailed by 13 points in ballots returned by party at this point.
    • This year it’s just three points.
  • In North Carolina, Republicans have the same ten-point lead in mail ballot requests they did in 2010.
  • Colorado is voting entirely by mail this year, so the data should be instructive.
    • Unfortunately, only very limited data is available on what’s in so far.
    • At least in the very early going, Republicans lead by 14 points in the percent of ballots returned from each party.
  • Right now Republicans are running up the score in Nevada, where after four days of early voting the GOP is voting ten points above registration numbers in Clark County (Las Vegas) and leading Democrats 46 to 38 percent statewide.

Senate race recap

Now that Obama is lending a helping hand to Republican hopefuls, and at least a few positive indicators in the early vote, how is the Senate shaping up?

Most of the predictive models got slightly better for Republicans over the last week, with only the New York times model dropping by more than a point (they’re also the most pessimistic for Republicans with just a 57 percent of a GOP takeover).

Model Probability of
Republican Control
from Last Week
New York Times 57% -5%
538.com 65% +5%
Huffington Post 65% +3%
PredictWise 80% +10%
Washington Post 93% -1%
Daily Kos 69% +3%

Unless something shocking happens, we won’t be talking about Kentucky next week or in our Election Day update. At this point we have to wonder if the Democrats wish they’d gone with Ashley Judd here instead.  She wouldn’t have won either, but at least the race would have been entertaining.

Three states that were more or less competitive earlier seem to be primed for Republican take-overs now:

  • Dan Sullivan has opened up a sustained single-digit lead in all of the Alaska polling, and Alaska polling tends to understate Republican support when it misses.
  • The last time Mark Pryor led a poll in Arkansas was in September.
    • Even Bill Clinton flying in to help out doesn’t seem to have given him much hope.
  • What should have been a swing race in Colorado seems to have gotten away from Democrats.
    • Mark Udall’s strange single-issue attack campaign took a Palinesque turn this week when he couldn’t even name three books that have influenced him.
    • Cory Gardner leads in all of the recent polls and gaffes are no way to reinvigorate a campaign.

In Iowa, Joni Ernst seems to have opened up a small lead but the race remains extremely close. One bad sign for Democrats: the DCCC has pulled money out of other races to run ads in Cedar Rapids in support of two incumbent Congressmen. If the Dems think otherwise safe House seats are in danger, their models and internals can’t be great for the statewide either.

The very narrow window that seemed to have cracked open for Democrats in South Dakota hasn’t opened any further. Two polls early this month showed the race in single-digits but now it’s been nearly two weeks without any more news, despite the fact that the DSCC committed a million dollars to the race. If one of the Democrat-aligned public polling firms had numbers showing the opportunity is real, we’d have seen them by now.

North Carolina remains hard to read. Dueling polls have shown everything from a small Tillis lead, to a small Hagan lead, to a tie. The bottom line here is that a race Democrats were fairly confident in a month ago is now very competitive, but we’re unlikely to get resolution until Election Day, which bodes well for the GOP in a wave year.

In Kansas the recent polling has shown either a narrow Roberts lead or a tie. Greg Orman has been facing negative press for refusing to stake out a position on much of any issue.  But in a referendum on an unpopular incumbent, it’s not clear if that will be enough to get Roberts to the finish line. Right now the probabilities are very slightly in favor of Republicans holding the seat, but it’s uncomfortably close.

Georgia has emerged as the new hot race. Michelle Nunn has seized on a single issue, outsourcing, and is finding new ways each week to say basically the same thing about David Perdue. But Perdue and outside groups have taken advantage of Obama’s bizarre decision to inject himself further into this election and Nunn’s own supportive comments about Obama. The recent polling shows a slight Nunn lead, but there strangely hasn’t been a poll from a top-quality firm since this race heated up.

The one poll showing a Scott Brown lead in New Hampshire seems to have been an outlier as subsequent polls have shown narrow Jeanne Shaheen leads. Brown is running a strong race and has plenty of outside support and Shaheen is having trouble, like many Democrats this year, answering questions about President Obama. But this remains a tough race.

Our best guess right now: When you’re losing all of the seats you’re defending and relying on increasingly exotic outcomes for success, it’s usually a bad sign. The data still suggest 51 seats for Republicans with 52 more likely than 50. If it doesn’t happen, the post-mortems regarding Kansas in particular are going to be fascinating.