With just two weeks left until Election Day, early voting in the midterms has started in many states, and there are already indications that turnout will be high. As new polls come in by the bushel, Republicans are increasingly confident that they will regain control of the House, where the Democrats currently have a slim majority, but what will happen in the Senate, which is now tied fifty-fifty, remains far more uncertain. It likely hinges on the outcomes of races in six states: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The worrying news for Democrats is that recent polls indicate a tightening in several key Senate races where they have been leading, including Georgia and Pennsylvania, and the generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party they intend to support, has shifted to the G.O.P. as well. A month ago, the RealClearPolitics poll average showed the Democratic Party leading the Republican Party by src.3 percentage points; over the weekend, it showed the G.O.P. leading by three percentage points. The FiveThirtyEight poll average shows the trend moving in the same direction, but it indicates a smaller Republican lead: src.5 percentage points. “If we were to calculate a generic-ballot polling average using only likely voter polls, Republicans would lead by 1.1 points, not src.5,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich pointed out on Monday.
Right now, the best news for Democrats is that the major poll averages indicate the Party’s Senate candidates in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania—Mark Kelly, Raphael Warnock, and John Fetterman—are still narrowly ahead of their respective G.O.P. rivals Blake Masters, Herschel Walker, and Mehmet Oz. If the final results mimic Tuesday evening’s polling averages from RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight, the Democrats would almost certainly retain control of the chamber. Should Kelly, Warnock, and Fetterman eke out victories, the Democrats could afford to lose in Nevada—where the Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt, is running slightly ahead of the Democratic incumbent, Catherine Cortez Masto—and still stand an excellent chance of retaining control of the Senate. In short, it’s very much still in play.
On Monday, I spoke with the Democratic pollsters Sean McElwee and Ethan Winter, of the progressive polling organization Data for Progress, and the Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini, who founded the polling firm Echelon Insights. Over the weekend, Data for Progress released a survey from Georgia that showed Warnock leading Walker by one percentage point, and a poll from Ohio that showed the Democrat Tim Ryan trailing the Republican J. D. Vance by three points. Last week, Echelon Insights released a poll from Pennsylvania which had Fetterman up by three points. All these polls were within the margin of error, reflecting close races.
McElwee and Winter both emphasized the headwinds that Democratic candidates are facing this year, beginning with President Biden’s low ratings and the fact that in midterm elections the party which holds the Presidency almost always suffers losses. McElwee also pointed out that, right now, some of the issues that voters appear most concerned about are ones for which Democrats have a “trust deficit.” In a nationwide poll of likely voters that Data for Progress released on Monday, the respondents ranked inflation, jobs and the economy, and immigration as the three issues most important to them. These three issues came ahead of protecting abortion rights, which Democrats have been emphasizing since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade, as well as protecting Social Security, which Biden and other Party leaders are emphasizing now. The Data for Progress poll also indicated that a large number of voters believe the Republican Party would do a better job of handling inflation and jobs—by fifteen points and ten points, respectively.
Given all these headwinds, McElwee said, “Your readers should expect that the median outcome is that the Republicans pick up a Senate seat”—and thereby gain control—but he also added that Democratic candidates still have “a very plausible path” to victory in each of the battleground Senate races. “The path to the Senate is narrow,” Winter added, “but is clear in that many of these races are very close tossups and all within margin of error. In order to make that happen, Democrats would need to win three of the four races in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia.”
One big factor helping the Democrats is the trust deficit afflicting the three candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump: the election-denier Masters, the longtime New Jersey resident Oz, and the former N.F.L. running back Walker. Despite the recent tightening in the polls, the trio are still proving a drag on the G.O.P.’s prospects. Masters hasn’t led in any public poll in the RealClearPolitics database, and neither has Oz. A CNN survey that was released on Monday showed Oz trailing by six points. On Tuesday night, Fetterman and Oz will take part in a much anticipated televised debate.
In Georgia, despite a recent narrowing in the polls, Walker is still struggling to overcome his many scandals, including, most recently, an accusation that he paid for a girlfriend to have an abortion (a claim he denies). In a July poll carried out by Data for Progress, Walker was leading Warnock among independent women, but in the organization’s most recent poll he was trailing by eighteen points—a huge turnaround. “Walker has managed to do himself a lot of damage,” Winter noted. Running in the novice candidate’s favor is Biden’s unpopularity in the state, and the fact that, in the other statewide race—for governor—the poll averages show the Republican incumbent, Brian Kemp, with a steady lead over the Democrat challenger, Stacey Abrams.
The key question, obviously, is whether Masters, Oz, and Walker can make up further ground and move ahead of their Democratic opponents. Pointing to recent developments in the Pennsylvania race, Ruffini said this is likely to happen. “We are seeing a consolidation of Republican support, and that process is still ongoing,” he said. One thing working for Oz, and not just with Republican voters, Ruffini added, is campaign ads that portray Fetterman as soft on crime. In some instances, Oz is distorting Fetterman’s record, but the tactic may be working: in the Echelon Insights poll, almost half the respondents who identified themselves as independents said they regarded Fetterman’s positions on crime as a problem. “That’s the big thing that has helped Oz close the gap from where it was in the summer,” Ruffini said.
The Republican pollster argued that similar dynamics are playing out in other key states, including Georgia and Ohio. “I think, as we get closer to Election Day, it’s going to be harder and harder for Democrats to sustain these big differences between the Senate ballot and the generic congressional ballot,” he said. “Voters think they have to elect someone to represent them on the issues they care about—inflation, crime, and immigration. These are the trifecta for Republicans right now.”
When I asked Ruffini what most concerns Republicans at this stage, he said that “there continues to be tail risk around the Roe issue in terms of what it might do to mobilize Democratic turnout.” Winter said it was difficult to overstate the importance of the post-Dobbs effect on Democratic prospects, “particularly in the Midwest, where the median voter tends to be secular and more pro-choice than in other parts of the country.” But he also said the fact that many independent voters are primarily focussed on economic issues “may mute the significance of abortion persuasion.”
With the key Senate races so tight, the outcomes of the elections could remain undecided until a runoff election in Georgia on December 6th, which would occur if neither Warnock nor Walker reached fifty per cent. Given the history of midterm elections and this year’s political environment, for the Democrats to hold on to even forty-nine Senate seats would be a “herculean” and praiseworthy outcome, McElwee argued. “I think if you had told someone a year ago that we were going to hold forty-nine Senate seats, they would have been, like, ‘So inflation has gone down a lot,’ ” he said. “You’d be, like, ‘No, none of that happened.’ Given all that, I think it is pretty impressive.” But now, he added, if the Republicans do get to fifty-one seats, “we are going to be really displeased.” ♦