Over the past few months, Democrats have enjoyed an unexpected feeling of optimism, as polling has shown their party unexpectedly competitive in House and Senate races. Maybe, despite the political gravity tugging their party down, they might be able to hold the Senate? Maybe both chambers? In less-realistic iterations, that optimism held that a massive surge of energy — fury, in particular — could lead to a blue wave that swept Democrats into office even in darker-red states.
It is still the case that Democrats might hold both chambers. But optimism is relative, and much of the optimism of the summer was that things wouldn’t be as bad as other indicators (like presidential approval) might suggest. Over the past week or two, though, the slow shift to the left that had been seen in the polls since the early summer began to stall or reverse.
If Democrats are going to benefit from a big surge in enthusiasm in November, that enthusiasm is no longer showing up in polling momentum.
Before we get too far here, I’ll acknowledge that polling is an imperfect measure. I’ve written about this; here’s how polling experts recommend considering polling and here’s a look at the recent pattern of polling errors. Polling is fraught — but what we’re measuring below isn’t who will win but how things are changing.
So how are they changing? Below is a graph of the net margin in FiveThirtyEight’s generic polling average (the average of the percentage of people telling pollsters they will support the Republican on their House ballot versus the percentage saying they’ll support the Democrat) over the past three months. You can see the line start to drop in mid-July and keeping trending downward — that is, toward the Democrats — over the next two months. The black line entered blue territory, a Democratic advantage, in early August.
For the past week, though — and, really, for the past month — it’s been flat.
That’s an average of polls. If we look at a specific poll, conducted regularly by YouGov, we can see a more pronounced shift to the GOP in recent weeks. Across a number of demographic groups, there’s been movement in the Republican direction, including among men, women and seniors.
Mind you, the polling experts with whom I spoke generally prefer averages like FiveThirtyEight’s. The utility of the YouGov polling here is that it easily breaks out those demographic groups. It’s also useful to note that the YouGov polls have generally been better for Democrats than the average itself.
The generic ballot average gives us a good sense of how the election might go, though in 2006 and 2014 it underestimated how Republicans would do. (In 2010 and 2018, it matched the national margin across House races.) Averages in individual races can be more informative — particularly when considering races that will determine control of the Senate.
Republicans need to flip only one Democratic seat to take control. In the 10 closest races identified by FiveThirtyEight, each party holds five — but Democrats lead in six.
Notice what’s happened in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in recent weeks, though. These averages can move around a lot based on new polling, but there’s been a shift upward in each case.
There are other suggestions that the national picture isn’t as good for Democrats as many Democrats have come to think. CNN’s Harry Enten points at a wide Republican advantage on handling the issue voters identify as most important to them. The New York Times’s Nate Cohn wrote last week about the rising importance for voters of issues that don’t boost the left — an argument boosted by new polling this week from Monmouth University.
Again, compared to where the party was in the spring, Democrats are in decent position. They could hold the Senate (if only 50-50, as it is now) and it’s unlikely that Republicans will come into 2023 with a massive majority in the House. But what’s indicated by polling now isn’t what many Democrats had hoped for. The polls spent a few months defying the downward tug of historical indicators. But that tug has proved to be quite strong.