Excuse me, but is that a partisan wave building?

Democratic polling, enthusiasm, fundraising make Republicans nervous

Participants in the Women’s March hold up signs Saturday outside the Supreme Court as they confront demonstrators in support of Amy Coney Barrett. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Participants in the Women’s March hold up signs Saturday outside the Supreme Court as they confront demonstrators in support of Amy Coney Barrett. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 19, 2020 at 11:59am

ANALYSIS — GOP insiders are now hoping for the best but bracing for the worst.

Veteran Republicans have all but given up on Donald Trump’s reelection and are now focused on minimizing the damage down ballot. They criticize Trump’s poor messaging and salute the Democrats’ fundraising numbers, which reflect Democratic enthusiasm and foretell Republican problems down the stretch.

While Republicans still have a chance to hang on to the Senate, Democratic gains are inevitable, and a net Democratic gain of at least three seats is likely.

But Republican nervousness doesn’t end there. They fear that dampened GOP turnout on Election Day, combined with unusually strong turnout by younger voters and a clear Democratic preference among seniors, could produce Democratic Senate (and House) gains that were once simply unimaginable.

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Trump vs. Biden

It is certainly true that the presidential election “ain’t over ’til it’s over.” But focusing on Republican registration gains in some states or “shy” Trump voters ignores the mountain of public opinion data that shows Joe Biden poised for a clear win in November. Remember, the national polls were largely correct four years ago in predicting the national vote.

Of course, the current 10-point contest could close by a couple of points. Maybe the Trump campaign can turn out large numbers of new voters, improve the president’s standing in key states or benefit from the final debate. But on the other hand, Biden could add to his current margins.

As I (and others) have written repeatedly, the dynamic in 2020, with Trump in the White House and COVID-19 dominating the narrative, is much different from four years ago, when Trump had no record, a wheelbarrow full of promises and an opponent who was much less popular than analysts appreciated.

The Oct. 9-12 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll confirmed what we’ve seen elsewhere. Trump is down by 11 points on the hypothetical ballot test (53 percent to 42 percent), while his job approval sits at a weak 44 percent.

Very few voters say they could change their mind, an unsurprising reality considering the candidates and the campaign to date.

Trump’s path to victory continues to be only through the Electoral College (or possibly through the courts) since he will lose the popular vote handily.

Unfortunately for the president and his party, Biden leads consistently in at least four crucial states Trump won in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. And at least a few others are pure toss-ups: North Carolina, Florida and Iowa.

Both presidential campaigns are focused on that handful of states (along with a few others, like Georgia and Ohio), and we should all watch for changes in public opinion in those crucial places. But each day, Trump’s window closes a bit more, shrinking any small chance he might have to overtake Biden in the battlegrounds.

The Senate

When the election cycle began almost two years ago, just three Republican Senate seats appeared likely to be in play (Colorado, Arizona and Maine), while one other looked like a potentially interesting Democratic opportunity (North Carolina). In addition, one Democratic seat, in Alabama, looked likely to flip from the Democrats to the GOP. (See my January 2019 piece on Susan Collins and my March 2019 piece on Cory Gardner.)

Now, with Trump’s poll numbers weak and Democratic fundraising through the roof, at least eight and as many as a dozen Republican Senate seats are worth watching.

Gardner in Colorado and Martha McSally in Arizona already look like goners, and Maine’s Collins, who once had bipartisan support and a reputation as a moderate, trails in public and private surveys. A personal scandal has so far not derailed Democrat Cal Cunningham’s challenge to Sen. Thom Tillis in the Tar Heel State, which Trump won by almost four points in 2016.

Beyond those four races, Republicans Joni Ernst of Iowa and David Perdue of Georgia are running even or trailing in their reelection races. The contests are so close that they could go either way, but incumbents usually don’t get most of the undecided vote at the end of the race. Georgia’s runoff requirement if no candidate receives a majority adds to the uncertainty.

In addition to those contests, Democrats have longer-shot opportunities in Montana, Alaska and a second Georgia Senate seat, and unlikely Senate contests in Kansas and Texas are worth watching.

Apart from Alabama, Republicans have only one other reasonable pickup target, in Michigan. Challenger John James trails incumbent Democrat Gary Peters, but the race is competitive.

Wave watch

Trump’s core supporters have not abandoned him. He is still doing well with rural voters, conservatives, white evangelicals and white men without a college degree.

But the president has begun to leak support from all demographic categories, and his standing among seniors appears to have plummeted from 2016, when he carried voters 65 and older by a solid 7 points.

The Supreme Court fight to confirm Amy Coney Barrett could push some potential GOP defectors back to their party, and unexpected events between now and Nov. 3 could shake up the race. But the president’s increasingly bombastic statements, outlandish accusations and tendency to produce chaos could add to his problems as Election Day approaches, both for his campaign and Republicans running for the Senate and the House.

Most partisan waves take place during midterm elections (e.g., 1958, 1966, 1974, 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018). Only rarely is a presidential nominee so objectionable that he damages his party up and down the ballot, as Barry Goldwater did in 1964 and Jimmy Carter did in 1980.

Of course, the election might not turn out to be as bad as some Republicans now fear. But GOP campaign veterans worry that Democratic enthusiasm and money, combined with Trump fatigue and the decline of ticket-splitting, will cost the party the White House — losing states they never expected to lose. And they fear that Trump will end up handing Democrats Senate and House seats that should not even be competitive.

Results like that would meet the definition of a partisan political wave.