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Generic Ballot Shows Republicans on Track to Retake House

The midterms approacheth. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

With congressional redistricting winding down and producing maps that add marginally to the Republicans’ midterm advantage, we can start evaluating the two parties’ odds of controlling the House in November via more conventional methods. The time-honored instrument for estimating the national House popular vote is the generic congressional ballot, a poll question that asks respondents which party they want to control the House without mentioning specific candidate. It’s hardly an infallible measure, but it’s a good one, and it may even be more predictive than in the past thanks to the continued rise in straight-ticket voting.

It’s also about all we’ve got for House midterm races given the absence of national presidential polling. In 2018, FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten looked at midterms dating back to 1946 and found that the generic ballot had been pretty solid:

For the 18 midterm elections that have taken place since 1946, I compared the final generic-ballot polling of the cycle by Gallup or the final polling average from RealClearPolitics with the results of the national House vote and found that the final polling missed by an average of only 2 percentage points. That’s about as accurate as the final national presidential polls before a presidential election.

In 2018 itself, the generic ballot was even more accurate. The final RCP average gave Democrats a 7.3 percent advantage; they won the national House popular vote by 8.4 percent. The 2020 numbers weren’t quite as accurate, but they were highly consistent with presidential polling: The generic ballot gave Democrats a 6.8 percent lead at RCP, much like Biden’s 7.2 percent lead over Trump. The actual results gave Democrats a 3.1 percent advantage in the national House popular vote and Biden a 4.5 percent win in the presidential popular vote.

So where are we now? At RCP, Republicans have a 3.5 percent lead in the generic ballot averages. They’ve held a lead since last November, though it’s down a bit from a peak of 4.7 percent in late April. At this point in 2018, Democrats led by 4.7 percent as well. In 2010, the last big Republican midterm election, Democrats actually led at this point in the calendar (albeit by only 0.3 percent). By November of that year, Republicans led the generic ballot by 9.4 percent, and they went on to win the national House popular vote by 6.8 percent. Similarly, in 2014, Democrats led in the generic ballot by an eyelash in mid-May, but Republicans led in the final polls by 2.4 percent and won the national House popular vote by 5.7 percent. So in the past three midterms, the non–White House party gained strength as Election Day approached. If that happens this year, the House will flip for sure, and Republicans could win themselves a tidy majority.

None of this, of course, has a direct bearing on the battle for control of the Senate. Because only a third of the upper chamber is at risk any particular year, there’s a unique Senate landscape each cycle that could lean in either direction. In 2014, for example, a fairly modest 5.7 percent Republican advantage in the national House popular vote nonetheless helped to produce a nine-seat GOP gain in the Senate thanks to a very friendly landscape. Conversely, in 2018, Republicans gained two Senate seats despite losing the national House popular vote by over eight points — again benefitting from a pro-Republican landscape. This year’s Senate landscape is marginally pro-Democratic. (Republicans must defend 21 Senate seats; Democrats are defending only 14, but four of those seats are in battleground states that could turn red.)

Finally, it’s not unheard of for the generic ballot to take an unexpected turn. After some seesawing going into the 2002 midterms, Republicans took a late lead when reactions to the September 11 attacks began to shape partisan perceptions. And in 1998, the release of the Starr Report and the consequent indications that House Republicans were going to impeach Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky scandal led to a late surge for Democrats in the generic ballot. These two cycles were ultimately the only midterms since 1934 in which the president’s party made House gains. Democrats are hoping that some surprise development (e.g., a backlash to a Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade) might make 2022 the third such unusual midterm since FDR’s administration.

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Generic Ballot Shows Republicans on Track to Retake House