New polls from the New York Times and Siena College sparked some guarded optimism for increasingly pessimistic Democrats: The results showed their candidates in crucial Senate races in Arizona and Pennsylvania holding leads outside the margin of error, while the Georgia poll put Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) at 47 percent and Republican Herschel Walker at 44 percent.
In each case, the polls were better for the blue team than other recent surveys, which had showed the GOP narrowing the gap and on the cusp of retaking the Senate. And if Democrats can win these seats, they probably hold the Senate.
But just as quickly, many — especially on the right — cast some doubt. A common refrain was that these polls showed the Democrats running far ahead of President Biden’s approval rating, in a way that’s either implausible or unsustainable. In Arizona, Biden’s approval was just 36 percent, but Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) was at 51 percent in his matchup with Republican Blake Masters — a 15-point gap. In Georgia, the gap was 10 points. In Nevada — where the race was tied — it was nine. And in Pennsylvania, the gap was seven.
The only thing especially surprising about the NYT/Siena senate numbers is the internal political gravity they show Dem candidates defying. Would be surprised if we saw such a consistent double digit disconnect between Dem share and Biden approval in the exits.
— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) October 31, 2022
There is no question this is a fundamental problem for Democrats — that they need to run ahead of Biden’s numbers by a significant clip. But how likely are they to pull that off?
It’s worth both a look at recent history and some of the particulars.
The first thing to note is that candidates have run far ahead of their party’s president before — though it’s relatively rare in competitive races.
In 2012, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) took 55 percent in a state in which Barack Obama’s approval rating was around 40 percent (and he took just 44 percent of the vote in his own race there). Then-Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) overperformed Obama by a significant margin, too.
In 2016, the Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri ran five points ahead of Barack Obama’s approval numbers. And in 2020, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) overperformed Donald Trump’s approval numbers by 10 points.
The most recent election in which it happened with any real frequency was 2014 — two midterms ago.
Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) ran seven and five points ahead of Obama’s approval rating, respectively, even though both lost. Then-Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) cleared Obama’s approval by five points in victory. And Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) each ran nine points ahead of Obama’s approval.
The time before that? The 2006 midterms, in which Republican incumbents on average ran 16 points ahead of George W. Bush’s approval rating, and GOP open-seat candidates in red seats ran more than 11 points better, according to a recent review by the Crystal Ball’s Dan Guild. Those incumbent numbers were inflated by two races, Guild noted, but GOP candidates writ large still ran significantly stronger than Bush’s approval ratings might have suggested.
That doesn’t mean that’s the norm, but it does suggest that it’s possible to do it under the right circumstances. And indeed, it’s happened a fair amount in two of the last four midterms.
At the same time, it might not be enough. Few of these gaps were on par with the ones we’re seeing in the new Arizona and Georgia polls. And in neither year was it enough to save the Senate for the president’s party; the Democrats lost the Senate in 2014, and the GOP in 2006.
Running far ahead of the president’s approval ratings may be even more difficult to do these days, as our country has become more polarized. One thing you’ll notice if you peruse Guild’s data is that these over-performances have generally declined in midterms since 2006, though they ticked up in 2014.
The question from there is whether this year’s dynamics are right to make it happen again. Some of the biggest overperformances came when Republicans ran flawed candidates — most especially, the two 2012 races featuring GOP nominees Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.
There is some evidence that could be the case in 2022. While their candidates perhaps don’t have the same kind of comments dragging them down as Akin and Mourdock did, polls have almost always shown voters don’t especially like the GOP nominees in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. While Biden’s numbers are bad in these polls, so too are Masters’s, Walker’s and Pennsylvania nominee Mehmet Oz’s — each around 10 points underwater.
The GOP’s potential saving grace? Not just Biden’s low approval ratings, but also which party voters want to be in charge of the Senate.
In Arizona, the Times/Siena poll showed they prefer a GOP Senate by seven points, even as Masters trails by six. In Georgia, they prefer GOP control by four points, even as Walker trails by three (neither are statistically significant, but the gap is). And in Pennsylvania, voters are split on control of the Senate, even as Oz trails by six.
Many voters will vote for a party over a person, and there is evidence that GOP-leaning voters have come home. We’ll see whether it’s enough — whether enough voters who dislike Biden and perhaps prefer the GOP to control the Senate decide that weighs more heavily than how much they dislike the particular GOP Senate nominee on their ballot.
And in just about all of the most pivotal races, that appears to be a — if not the — central question.