For a while now, a large plurality of Americans have been telling pollsters that they would like Democrats to regain control of the House next year. As of this writing, 49.2 percent of voters say they’re pulling for Team Blue this November, while just 41.4 percent are back the GOP, according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls.
But (as anyone who was sentient on November 8, 2016, is well aware) in American elections, the party that wins more votes does not necessarily win more power. And the “generic” congressional ballot is an especially crude metric for gauging the likelihood of a Democratic takeover. Due to the heavy concentration of Democratic voters in urban centers — and severe Republican gerrymandering in many states — Democratic candidates could win far more votes than GOP ones this fall, and still fail to secure House control.
Thus, it hasn’t been clear exactly what constitutes a “good” generic ballot poll for Democrats. Prognosticators disagree over precisely how large a popular-vote victory Democrats will need in order to win a majority of House seats. Such speculation hinges, in large part, on where one assumes Democrats’ polling support is coming from — if the party is simply running up the score in already blue territory, then even an eight-point popular vote victory could be insufficient to knock the House gavel out of Republican hands.
But now, a new survey has provided us with a 2018 poll composed exclusively of voters in the 69 battleground House districts — and Nancy Pelosi will like the results.
The Washington Post, in partnership with the Schar School, polled the 69 districts that were rated as “toss-ups,” “lean Republican,” or “lean Democrat” by the Cook Political Report this past August — and found that voters in such areas prefer a Democratic Congress by a margin of 50 to 46 percent. By contrast, in 2016, these same districts collectively favored Republican candidates by a margin of 56 to 41 percent.
The Democrats four-point lead in these battlegrounds might look perilously thin on first blush. But of the 69 districts polled, 63 are currently held by Republican incumbents; and to take the House, Democrats need to flip just 23. Which is to say: Pelosi’s party can afford to lose far more than half of these contests, and still get her the Speaker’s gavel. If Democrats win the popular vote across these battlegrounds by any margin at all, they will almost certainly win control of Congress’s lower chamber.
Should that happen, Democrats will owe college-educated women some thank-you cards. Demographically, the House battlegrounds are 7 percent more white than America as a whole; in previous elections, this dearth of African-American and Hispanic voters has rendered Democrats uncompetitive in most of these districts. But the battlegrounds are also 4 percent more college-educated than the country writ large — and in the Trump era, few things are more threatening to Republicans than a woman with a higher education: White, college-educated women in the battleground districts favor Democrats over Republicans by a whopping 62 to 35 percent margin, while white women without such diplomas back Republicans 49 to 45 percent.
Meanwhile, the Post poll further confirms that favorable economic conditions are unlikely to bail out the GOP next month: Although 77 percent of battleground voters say the economy is “excellent” or “good,” 57 percent nevertheless think the country is moving in the wrong direction, economy aside.
The Post poll’s findings comport with the results from recent district-level polling, and the Cook Political Report’s latest House race ratings — all of which suggest a Democratic takeover is highly likely.
And yet, as of Monday, Republicans still have a better chance of keeping the House, than Democrats do of capturing the Senate. According to FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts, Team Blue now has a mere 2 in 9 (21.4 percent) chance of taking the upper chamber, while Republicans boast an approximately 1 in 4 chance of retaining the House. This year’s Senate map is even more unfavorable for Democrats than the House one. For much of the past year, it looked like a blue wave just might lift Democratic candidates to victory in some of America’s reddest states. But in the most recent batch of surveys, Republican voters have begun to come home: Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp now trails Kevin Cramer by double digits in North Dakota’s Senate race, while Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn has pulled ahead of former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen in Tennessee. Meanwhile, Rick Scott is still breathing down Bill Nelson’s neck in the Sunshine State, and Ted Cruz’s small lead over Beto O’Rourke is looking sturdy.
It is still possible that pollsters are systematically underestimating Democratic turnout, and thus, that voters will deliver the Senate to Chuck Schumer in November. But for the moment, that prospect appears a bit less likely than Republicans finding a way to maintain unified control of the federal government, even after a large majority of voters register their opposition to GOP rule.