A year’s worth of polling by CQ Roll Call on politics reveals that congressional aides are just as bewildered by the Democratic field and its prospects as anyone else.
They’re pretty sure, at the same time, that control of the House and Senate won’t change. And both sides are feeling confident about winning the White House.
In responding over the course of 2019 to the Capitol Insiders Survey, staffers have reflected the shifting national polling.
Consider that, in March, before Joe Biden entered the presidential race, a plurality of Democratic aides — 43 percent — predicted California Sen. Kamala Harris would be the party’s standard-bearer against President Donald Trump. Biden picked up a substantial write-in vote, while Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders rounded out the top three at 12 percent. Not a single staffer thought it would be Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
CQ Roll Call conducts its poll by email, using a comprehensive list of staff addresses. The poll is unscientific but draws a steady response, typically 150 to 200 aides. CQ Roll Call polled staffers five times in 2019, in January, March, April, September and October.
Biden joined the race in April, and the Democrats quickly embraced him, with 55 percent saying he’d be the nominee and would be the candidate most likely to beat Trump. Warren barely registered.
But by September, after Biden’s fundraising faltered and his debate performances underwhelmed, Warren took the lead. In September and October polls, about 6 in 10 Democratic staffers said she’d be the candidate to face Trump.
“She’s run a very good campaign and delivered a good message,” said Steve Elmendorf, a onetime chief of staff to former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt and now a lobbyist at Subject Matter. “That resonates with base voters, and, by definition, Democratic staffers are base voters.”
Congressional aides, meanwhile, split between Biden and Warren when asked who they think would have the best chance to beat the president. In the September poll, Warren led 45 percent to Biden’s 39 percent. In October, Biden was up 40 percent to 34 percent. Other candidates, including Harris, Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, remain far behind.
Alarm bells rising
The politics are clearly of concern to some Democrats. Progressives are dominating the conversation. Asked in April whether the plan espoused by both Warren and Sanders to replace private health insurance with Medicare would help or hurt the party, a narrow plurality said it would help, 45 percent to 39 percent.
The Democrats were more concerned about the Green New Deal. About half said it would hurt, while a third said it wouldn’t.
Asked more generally whether the split between progressives and moderates would help or hurt the party, most Democrats said they expected the party to come together, with 52 percent in October and 44 percent in September saying the divide wouldn’t hurt. But a sizable percentage, 36 percent in October and 40 percent in September, said it would.
GOP in sync
On the Republican side, Trump’s consolidation of control over the GOP is evident. On the eve of the 2016 election, more Republican staffers told CQ Roll Call they’d vote for a third-party candidate than for him, an indication of just how much Trump had challenged and offended the GOP establishment in Washington during his campaign.
Neither did they trust that he would govern as a Republican, given his past statements and positions.
But while Trump has moved the party from its traditional position on trade and sided with populists over its business wing on immigration, he’s satisfied conservatives enough with his judicial selections and his signature on the 2017 tax overhaul.
In September, more than 6 in 10 Republican staffers said they supported Trump for reelection. In October, it was more than 7 in 10.
“The people who want to run against him aren’t likable,” said Sam Geduldig, who was an aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner and is now a partner at the CGCN Group lobbying firm. “Trump has always benefited from having enemies less popular than him.”
Each side confident
Meanwhile, the lessons of 2016 hang over predictions about next year’s presidential vote. Few, including congressional staffers, bet on Trump’s victory. National polls and the Capitol Insiders Survey had Democrat Hillary Clinton cruising to a comfortable win.
But the national polls failed to capture the widely differing views in the states, or to consider America’s unique Electoral College system, which gave Trump the win even as he lost the popular vote.
This time around, national polls again show Trump trailing. But Republican congressional staffers expect he’ll be reelected. In September, 3 in 4 said he’d win, compared with 1 in 5 who said it would be the Democratic candidate.
In October, the GOP aides were more decisive, with 80 percent predicting a Trump victory, compared with 17 percent who said it would be the Democrat.
Democrats, meanwhile, are confident of victory but are not without their skeptics. In September, 2 in 3 predicted the Democratic candidate would beat Trump, while a third said Trump would win.
In October, 82 percent of Democrats were ready to declare victory, with 17 percent thinking Trump would get another term.
‘Status quo Congress’
But if congressional staffers are divided on the presidential race, they are mostly in agreement that neither chamber is likely to change hands.
That’s despite the fact that Democrats must defend 31 House incumbents representing districts that Trump won in 2016, while Republicans hold just three seats that Clinton carried.
Still, retirements are often a good gauge of whether a party is expecting to win control. And so far, 20 Republican incumbents are retiring or seeking higher office, compared with eight Democrats.
GOP aides see little prospect of them winning the 18 seats needed to reclaim the majority. In both the September and October polls, around 6 in 10 GOP respondents said the Democrats would have the majority for another Congress.
Democratic staffers were even more confident of holding the chamber, with nearly all of them predicting as much in the September and October surveys.
But with their side facing a difficult playing field in the Senate — they must defend Doug Jones in Alabama and have limited opportunities to pick up seats — a majority of Democratic respondents to the September and October polls predicted the GOP would retain control there.
Democrats need to net four seats to retake the Senate if Trump wins reelection — three if the Democratic nominee wins. Their best chances are in Colorado, against first-termer Cory Gardner, and in Maine, where Susan Collins has struggled to differentiate herself from Trump in a state where his popularity is flagging.
“A status quo Congress is not just the conventional wisdom but also the view of the political experts,” Elmendorf said. To get a different outcome “would require a big wave either way.”