Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
Poll(s) of the week
Just eight years ago, it would have been weird to put Iowa and Ohio in the same electoral category as Georgia and Texas. In the 2012 election, President Obama won Iowa by 6 percentage points and Ohio by 3 points while losing Georgia by 8 and Texas by 16.
But in the early stages of the Trump era, Georgia and Texas got a bit more blue, while Iowa and Ohio got more red. (Exactly why these shifts happened at the same time is complicated, so let’s leave that aside for the moment.) In 2016 and 2018, these four states voted similarly — about 11 points, give or take, to the right of the country overall. That gave Trump fairly comfortable wins in all four states in 2016 — when Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by just 2 points — but Republicans barely won in several key statewide races in these four states in 2018, when Democrats won the national U.S. House vote by about 9 points.
Confidence Interval: Will Democrats win the trifecta? l FiveThirtyEight
Fast-forward to 2020, which is looking about as blue as 2018 — and perhaps even more so — and all four states look competitive. You can see that in the latest polls. Morning Consult surveys released this week showed President Trump with just a 2-point lead in Georgia and Texas, and a 3-point lead in Ohio. A CBS News/YouGov poll had Biden and Trump tied in Iowa. Those are just a few polls, obviously, but they largely match the FiveThirtyEight polling averages in each of these states.
Biden doesn’t need to carry these states — he can win a comfortable Electoral College victory without carrying them. Trump does need them, however — but he also needs bluer states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to win reelection. Similarly, Democrats can win a Senate majority without carrying any of the four Senate seats up for grabs in these states (none in Ohio but two in Georgia).
But these states are still important. Winning the Senate races there would likely mean that Democrats have 53 or 54 seats overall, giving them room for defections on key votes. A strong performance from Biden in Texas, meanwhile, could help down-ballot Democrats there, as the party could flip several U.S. House seats and the Texas House of Representatives. Symbolically, winning Georgia and particularly Texas would suggest that Democrats have really arrived in the South after years of talk about their potential strength in that region. And winning Iowa and particularly Ohio would suggest that Democrats’ decline in the Midwest have been overstated.
So let’s look at these four states more closely. (I have generally ordered them from Democrats’ best chances to their worst.)
Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield has a 53 in 100 chance of winning, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast for Iowa; Biden has a 42 in 100 chance of winning, per our presidential forecast.1
Even with the national shift toward the Democrats, Greenfield’s strong standing has been a bit surprising. Incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst, as both a Republican woman and former Army reservist, was a compelling candidate when she ran for the Senate in 2014 and seemed like a rising star in the GOP after she won by 8 points in a state Obama had carried two years earlier. She has probably been more aligned with Trump than a senator from a swing state should be for electoral reasons, but she hasn’t made any major gaffes or had any big scandals in her Senate tenure. And Greenfield, who runs a real estate firm in Des Moines, doesn’t particularly have a unique biography, and she has never been elected to any office before.
Part of the story here is likely that people in politics like me assumed that Ernst was a strong candidate because her 2014 margin looked really big at the time, but that margin was really about Iowa shifting to the right more than Ernst herself. (Trump won big there in 2016.) So Ernst is struggling now because Iowa has moved back left and she doesn’t have much popularity separate from the broader GOP.
Our model has Biden doing slightly worse than Greenfield — or put another way, Trump is doing better than Ernst. That might just be random polling effects, and the presidential and Senate results could end up lining up fairly closely. But there is an obvious explanation for this dynamic: Democrats are spending a lot of money in Iowa to try to win the Senate race, but not much in terms of the presidential race. Biden and various organizations backing his campaign have spent just $3.3 million on TV commercials in Iowa to boost him, according to a recent NPR analysis. That compares with $154.1 million in Florida, the state where they are spending the most. But Democratic-aligned groups have spent more than $56 million in the Ernst-Greenfield race, more than all but one other Senate campaign (North Carolina). This makes sense. Winning a Democratic Senate seat in Iowa is just as valuable as winning one in Texas. But for Biden, Iowa is far less valuable — it has only six electoral votes.
Biden’s chances in Iowa and Ohio are fairly similar, reflecting the national dynamics we explained above. But here’s one factor to watch in the next few weeks: It’s likely that Biden and Democratic groups backing his campaign will invest more heavily in trying to win Ohio than to win Georgia, Iowa or Texas (at the presidential level). Ohio has way more electoral votes (18) than Iowa. And Ohio is fairly demographically and culturally similar to states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that Biden has been targeting for months.3 So Biden doesn’t need to adapt his approach to win in those states, while Georgia and Texas are much different politically from the Midwestern states.
Biden has a 50 in 100 chance, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast; Democrats have a 49 in 100 chance of winning Georgia’s special Senate election, with Raphael Warnock as their likely candidate, and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff has a 28 in 100 chance in the state’s other U.S. Senate race.5
Biden may have a better chance than Democrats at the Senate level largely because of Georgia election law. At the presidential level, the winner of the plurality of the vote gets the state’s 16 electoral votes. But for the Senate (and other races in Georgia), you can win only if you get 50 percent of the vote or more. So it’s possible that both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate races will go to a runoff, which would take place on Jan. 5. Based on current polling, Democrats may have won the House, the presidency and the Senate by that date. I would expect Republicans to try really really hard to win one or both of these Senate races in such a runoff, and this is already a GOP-leaning state in the first place.
But the rules aren’t the only reason to be skeptical of Democrats’ chances of winning in Georgia, particularly at the Senate level. Candidate strength is another. Stacey Abrams’s decision not to run for either of these Senate seats made sense for her (Abrams said she didn’t want to be a senator) but was problematic for Democrats in Georgia. In the race against incumbent Sen. David Perdue, Ossoff won the Democratic primary in a crowded field. Ossoff, a one-time staffer to Georgia congressman Hank Johnson, is perhaps most famous for his 2017 U.S. House campaign in suburban Atlanta that got a lot of national attention because it was one of the first congressional races after Trump’s election. But Ossoff lost that race and has never won or held political office before.
Similarly, in the race for the seat held by Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Democratic Party establishment has coalesced around Warnock, who has never even run for office before. Of course, it makes sense why Democrats have boosted Warnock despite his lack of electoral experience. He is the kind of person the Democratic Party would like to elect to the Senate to represent Georgia — a Black man who serves as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, the church Martin Luther King Jr. once led.
But Democrats have a chance in these races because of the blue-leaning national environment but also because the GOP candidates are not exactly juggernauts either. First elected in 2014, Perdue has been a strong defender and ally of Trump, including his anti-immigration policies. And Perdue, like Trump, has done little outreach outside of his base. That approach likely ensures he will get almost total opposition from Georgia’s large bloc of Black voters6 and will lose badly in the Atlanta suburbs. So if Ossoff can peel off a few white swing voters and the Democratic base turns out at really high levels, he can win this seat.
Loeffler is also likely to have trouble wooing voters outside of the GOP base because of the particular dynamics of her race. She was appointed in December 2019 by Gov. Brian Kemp, after longtime Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson retired. Because of that appointment, her race is officially a special election, with different rules than the Ossoff-Perdue contest. There were no party primaries. So more than a dozen candidates from both parties are running, with the top two advancing to face off on Jan 5. Kemp picked Loeffler with the idea that a 49-year-old woman who co-owns Atlanta’s WNBA team could run for this seat and appeal to more moderate voters. But GOP congressman Doug Collins, who represents an area in more rural northeastern Georgia, opted to run too. Collins is very conservative. So Loeffler, worried that Collins and Warnock would finish ahead of her, has aggressively moved to the right, looking to secure enough GOP votes to make it to the runoff.
In some polls, she is ahead of Collins and seems likely to make it into a runoff against Warnock. But she attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, and the players on the Atlanta Dream are now strong critics of her. Loeffler’s more moderate branding is gone. She is now like Perdue, a Republican who must run up the score among more conservative and rural Georgians to overcome opposition by Georgia’s urban, suburban and Black voters.
Why do Democratic chances seem slimmer in Texas? In terms of the Senate, the Republicans have a stronger candidate compared with those in Georgia and Iowa. Incumbent Sen. John Cornyn has won six statewide races in Texas: Supreme Court twice, attorney general once and Senate three times. In contrast, Hegar, a former Air Force pilot, has never held elective office. She ran and lost in a U.S. House race two years ago. As with Abrams in Georgia, it’s worth considering if ex-congressman Beto O’Rourke, who ran such a strong 2018 campaign for Senate in Texas, would be polling better than Hegar if he had run. Also, Democratic groups aren’t spending that much in the Texas Senate race since they can try to win smaller, less-expensive states like Iowa.
Similarly, as I alluded earlier, Biden’s campaign also hasn’t spent much time or resources trying to win Texas. That makes sense — Texas will almost certainly not be a tipping state that determines the election. But if Democrats fall short of winning the Texas House of Representatives, not investing in Texas might end up looking like a mistake. A Texas dominated by Republicans can draw district lines for congressional races that will make it hard for Democrats to win seats and keep their U.S. House majority.
Other polling bites
- Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina led his opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, 51 percent to 44 percent among registered voters, according to a Monmouth University poll released this week. Among likely voters, Cooper led Forest 51 percent to 37 percent in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll.
- About 79 percent of Black Americans think that structural and systemic racism is a “major obstacle” to Black people in America achieving equal outcomes compared with white people, according to a new poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic Americans and 43 percent of white Americans agreed. About 73 percent of Black adults said that individual acts of discrimination and racism were a major barrier for Black people, compared with 67 percent of Hispanic adults and 46 percent of white adults.
- In that same survey, 65 percent of Black men and 59 percent of Black women said that it is a “bad time” to be a Black man or Black woman in America. Just 25 percent of Black men and 34 percent of Black women said it is a good time. Black Americans are expressing much more negative views on their lives than when these questions were previously asked. In a 2006 KFF/Washington Post/Harvard University poll, 60 percent of Black men said that it was a good time to be Black in America, compared with 28 percent who said it was a bad time. In a 2011 KFF/Washington Post poll, 73 percent of Black women said it was a good time, while 15 percent said it was a bad time. (This was a really interesting poll, and I highly recommend reading it in full.)
- According to a recent Navigator Research survey, 52 percent of registered voters said that the “worst is yet to come” in terms of dealing with the novel coronavirus. That’s compared with 32 percent who said “the worst is over” and 16 percent who said they didn’t know. The poll also found that 78 percent support laws in their states requiring people to wear masks in public places. That includes 92 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans.
- Just 21 percent of registered voters support adding justices to the Supreme Court, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll; 46 percent oppose the idea, and 33 percent are not sure.
- New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, leads his Democratic opponent for governor, state senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, by 55 percent to 31 percent among likely voters, according to a new Suffolk University poll. The same survey found Biden ahead of Trump 51 percent to 41 percent in New Hampshire. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, is ahead 51 percent to 36 percent in her reelection bid against her Republican opponent, Corky Messner.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,8 42.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 54.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.6 points). At this time last week, 43.2 percent approved and 53.4 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.2 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 43.1 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.7 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.6 points.
In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,9 Democrats currently lead by 7 percentage points (48.9 percent to 41.9 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.5 points (49.3 percent to 42.8 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.5 points (48.6 percent to 42.1 percent).
Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.