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What Happened To The Democratic Wave?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): For your consideration today:

Whatever happened to that Democratic wave?

The Democratic advantage over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot is down to less than 6 percentage points:

What’s going on? Is it time for Democrats to 🚨 PANIC!!! 🚨?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I guess Democrats have nine more months in which to panic and/or watch the generic ballot change — up and down — right?

Happy February, by the way, everyone.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It is not time for them to panic, but it’s a reminder not to take anything for granted.

clare.malone: That feels like good life advice in general.

micah: That’s a 💤 take.

natesilver: It’s the correct take, and any other take is OBVIOUSLY wrong.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): This is rather an odd feeling, right? We’re seeing all these Republican retirements. The special elections continue to look good for the Democrats, and now the generic ballot has narrowed significantly.

micah: Wait a sec …

We’ve been telling readers that Republicans are in trouble — look at the special election results, which matched the generic ballot. Now the generic ballot has narrowed (we haven’t had any super recent special elections), shouldn’t that be cause for Democratic concern?

natesilver: You already asked that question.

micah: I’m trying to square your answer with what you’ve been saying for months.

natesilver: I think we’ve been saying that there’s a pretty rich mix of evidence — polling, special elections data, retirements, the history of the “out” party performing well in midterms — suggesting that the political winds favor Democrats. Now one of those indicators — an important one, the generic ballot — doesn’t look as good.

But if you had a model that blended all those indicators together, how much would a 5-point swing on the generic ballot in January affect your prediction for November? I don’t know, because we don’t start building those sorts of models until late in the election year. But I’d guess you’d have to discount it pretty heavily; so maybe a 5-point swing in January translates to a 1-point or 2-point swing in your November prediction, or something.

micah: 1 or 2 points isn’t nothing.

natesilver: You seem to have this straw-man position that I’m saying it’s nothing when I don’t hold that position.

micah: lol

harry: Well, Mr. Silver. I have not a formal model, but I do have something mathematical or statistical. I went back as far as I could and looked at the generic ballot in January of a midterm year versus the results in November.

It essentially shows what you’re getting at: Yes, it matters, but there is a natural reversion to the mean. Ergo, a movement of say 5 points now does roughly translate into a 2-point movement come November, on average.

natesilver: And maybe less of an impact than that if you’re also looking at other indicators and not just the generic ballot. Like, if Democrats start to perform less well in special elections, then it’s more concerning for them.

So far, we haven’t really seen those other indicators slip.

micah: Before we get to the why of all this … are Dems panicking at all?

clare.malone: Well, they will be after they read this chat.

harry: Nice.

micah: Haha.

clare.malone: Actually, I did talk to an avid generic-ballot checker a couple of days ago, and that person was quite alarmed at the Democratic dive.

So, anecdotally, I suppose some informed watchers might be worried, but don’t you think that by and large, the Democratic base IS NOT checking on where the generic ballot is?

harry: Who do you hang out with?!

clare.malone: heh

micah: What about Democratic officeholders? Perry?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): We’ve had Trump making gains in polls for a short time, but this was also the week of the State of the Union and Nunes/memogate. So I haven’t talked to a lot of Dems freaking out about the generic ballot, but that’s because they are freaking out about other things. David Frum, one of the most anti-Trump Republicans, is freaking out.

So we published a story on Dec. 22 with the headline “The Democrats’ Wave Could Turn Into A Flood.” Is that statement still operative? And is this line — “Once you take into account who holds the White House, the generic ballot at this point is usually predictive of the midterm House result” — still operative?

Those were my questions, as a nonexpert on the generic ballot.

clare.malone: They’re still up by … 6.

micah: Yeah, all that is still true. The flood is just less likely?

natesilver: A key point of context here is that Democrats could win the House popular vote by 6 points — which is kind of a lot — and still not take the House.

harry: Right. The movement we saw from December’s generic ballot average to January’s average was obviously smaller than the movement from December’s Democratic high point to January’s Democratic low point. And we published that article (unknowingly) at December’s high point, and we’re at the low point now.

There’s probably a floor in here somewhere for the Democrats given the fundamentals at play.

natesilver: Another key point of context is that it doesn’t take all that much to go from a ripple to a tsunami. If the Democrats were to win the House popular vote by 12 points say — and there were lots of polls to that effect in December — they could win lots and lots and lots of seats. It’s a pretty nonlinear effect once you start getting into the territory where supposedly safe gerrymandered seats come into play.

So I think the conventional wisdom is overly certain that Democrats will take the House. But I also think the chance of Democrats winning say 50+ seats is higher than people assume.

micah: OK, so let’s talk why the environment has shifted toward Republicans.

clare.malone: It could just be wintertime seasonal affective disorder for the generic ballot … or maybe people being happy that Congress passed legislation/Trump hasn’t done or said anything too out of the ordinary in awhile?

harry: I mean, Trump’s approval rating went up, so that’s a pretty decent starting point.

natesilver: I think (i) Trump has been a little quieter; (ii) there’s been more focus on the economy, and the economy is good; and (iii) the tax bill is less of a hindrance to the GOP (I don’t know that I buy that it has been a help).

micah: Is that in order of importance?

natesilver: Not in any particular order.

micah: Anyone want to put those in order?

perry: Frum said the Trump/GOP improvement is about all of these companies announcing bonuses/hiring and Trump trumpeting that. That seems plausible.

I would put economy news at No 1. And No. 2 is that there is no tax bill, health care bill or other piece of unpopular legislation moving through Congress. I’d put Trump’s behavior — which is quieter but has still included some controversy, like the “shithole” incident — at No. 3.

clare.malone: Right, all of the above. The Democrats, given that they hold no chamber of government, are at a disadvantage at this sort of lull time in an election year. They can’t really get any news about initiating legislation, they’re forced into reactive positions like during the government shutdown, and it’s months before primaries heat up and news about congressional races — many of which will have an anti-Trump bent — starts trickling out.

micah: And Democrats sorta messed up the shutdown, no?

natesilver: The tax bill is weird because some of the GOP’s worst numbers all year were when the tax bill was being debated. They hit generic ballot lows and Trump hit his approval rating low basically right as the thing was being signed. So it helps the GOP that the tax bill is becoming less unpopular, but, as Perry says, it maybe also helps that it isn’t as salient right now.

clare.malone: Democrats probably could have been a bit bolder about the shutdown play, given that polling seemed sympathetic to their position on DACA, yes (although the public didn’t favor shutting down the government).

natesilver: I don’t know that the shutdown had a huge effect. But I do think there was a lot of news in January that got partisans on both sides riled up, and that’s sorta good news for the GOP.

Look, lots of swing voters are going to vote Democratic this year. That’s usually how it works in the midterms — the swing voters vote against the president’s party. But what determines trickle vs. wave vs. tsunami will be the relative turnout levels of the parties.

harry: I’m don’t think the shutdown hurt Democrats. At least, there’s not a lot of evidence it did.

perry: I have never seen this many companies announce bonuses, etc. and credit the federal government. I know it’s cynical on the companies’ parts in some ways, but it’s like a Trump-PR blitz sponsored by corporate America. Trump’s White House does not have much credibility, but these companies do. They are selling the tax cut in some ways. That helps.

micah: Yeah, I buy that, Perry.

If you’re a company right now making hires, there are “get in the administration’s good books” reasons to make a big deal of it. And to say it’s about taxes or regulations or whatever.

natesilver: The White House seems to be getting smarter — particularly in its PR strategy.

For example, the thing they did where they convinced everyone that the State of the Union was gonna be super bipartisan, but it was actually quite partisan once you peeled away the rhetoric — that indicated a level of sophistication.

perry: If Trump can get companies to announce in October and November bonuses based on the tax cut, that would help. I doubt that will happen. I think he is in a tax cut/hiring boost that will be temporary, in other words.

So I expect the generic ballot to move back toward the Democrats. Is that what everyone here is saying too?

clare.malone: I saw something from the Pew Research Center the other day that noted that the share of Americans who see the economy as the top priority to be dealt with has been dropping. I wonder if that has any effect going forward, as the election year unfurls.

In other words: Will the economy remain the main, motivating issue of 2018? (Which we presume would be good for Trump?)

It doesn’t necessarily seem like it will be, given the focus on immigration, etc.

harry: Well, that could, in part, explain why Trump’s economic approval rating isn’t pushing up his overall job approval rating, which, in turn, is linked to the congressional generic ballot.

micah: Yeah, I think there are lots of anti-Trump voters who won’t be swayed no matter what the economy does.

natesilver: It will be interesting to see what happens if we move into a Russia/FBI/clusterfark news cycle, as we appear to be moving into now.

Clearly, the more people are focused on the economy, the better it is for Trump and the GOP, both because the economy is pretty good and because all the other storylines are pretty bad for them.

perry: We are talking — in terms of his approval rating, which I understand a bit better — about two different blocs of the electorate, right? The tax cut and policies like that should shore up his numbers among Republicans, getting him close to 90 percent approval among GOP voters. And that will get him close to 40 percent overall. But the more reluctant Trump voters of 2016 and then the rest of the electorate are still a problem, right?

harry: Right. This is from Gallup back in June, but look at these differences by party:

The economy is a pretty decent issue for Republicans, or at least a break-even one.

But to Perry’s point, there’s only so much that a party with a president who has a 40 percent approval rating can improve on the generic congressional ballot.

I also wonder how much of what we’ve seen is simply a reversion to the mean. Yesterday, I took monthly averages of the FiveThirtyEight generic ballot tracker. The Democratic advantage in December was 10.7 percentage points. In January, it was 8.1 points. And the monthly average since July is 8.7 points

So, December was something of an outlier. January was closer to the long-term average.

natesilver: I mean, everything reverts to the mean, but it’s hard to know what the mean is.

harry: I guess what I’m saying is news cycles go up and down.

clare.malone: The Circle Game of the Trumpian era.

natesilver: The abnormal is actually normal.

perry: An atmosphere where Trump is at 40 percent approval and Democrats lead the generic ballot by 6 to 8 points is different than Trump at 37 percent and Democrats up 8 to 11, as we saw for much of the last year. Democrats should be worried about the former, if we think that will be the new “mean.”

harry: Now that is an interesting thought.

natesilver: Yeah, the thing is we’re in the range where there’s large marginal impact. If Democrats went from +5 on the generic ballot to +2, it wouldn’t matter much. But +9 is a pretty different number than +6.

micah: Right. I’ll say this, and this is one reason I do think Democrats should be concerned: The last month or so has shown that if Trump tones it down and Republicans get a few good breaks, then the Democratic advantage will shrink — shrink enough so that (even in a midterm year against a president of the opposite party) taking back the House (let alone the Senate) will be a challenge.

That’s the thing, really: Because of self-sorting/gerrymandering and the bad Senate map, a +6 Democratic advantage on the generic ballot isn’t great.

natesilver: A +6 would make Democrats heavy underdogs in the Senate and slight underdogs in the House.

micah: Right.

clare.malone: So a lot of what we’re attributing the Republican/Trump rise in popularity to is him staying quiet. But I just wonder about the long-term stability of that condition. It’s either (i) the White House has gotten more disciplined and on message or (ii) Trump hasn’t had much to respond to.

micah: I don’t know how much of a factor that is. The economy is a simpler explanation, and the tax debate going away.

natesilver: January was a slow news month — at least, the first half of it was.

clare.malone: I think that once people actually start throwing barbs at Trump during midterm ads, campaigns, etc., he’s more likely to take the bait.

perry: So I think the question of whether Democrats should panic depends on whether we think a generic ballot of +6 or +9 is more likely by, say, September. I expect the Democratic advantage to grow again, but I’m bad at predicting. Also, how much of the Democratic advantage is baked in, by GOP incumbents who maybe could have won re-election instead retiring, anticipating a worse environment than the one that actually exists?

micah: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how the generic ballot affects the retirement beat.

OK, any final thoughts?

natesilver: Well, I think it’s a little early to be sweating every tick of the generic ballot. With that said, I hope this chart will be a useful corrective to the emerging narrative that a Democratic wave is inevitable. There’s high potential for a wave. And if there is a wave, it could be a large one. But there are also scenarios in which Republicans battle things … not quite to a draw, but to enough of a draw that their geographic advantages let them keep both chambers of Congress.

micah: Here’s my final thought — a proposal for our nautical-themed 2018 midterm terminology:

  1. puddle (Democrats gain 0 to 4 House seats)
  2. trickle (5 to 9)
  3. ripple (10 to 14)
  4. swell (15 to 19)
  5. wave (20 to 24)
  6. flood (25 to 29)
  7. tsunami (30+)

And if the Senate and House have very different results, it’s a “split peak wave.” That’s courtesy of @SurferSalsaDan:

natesilver: Oh, see, you’re totally conceiving of the problem wrong with those seat ranges.

micah: Waddya mean?

natesilver: It’s way too narrow a range

micah: There’s a + sign at the end.

natesilver:

  1. anti-wave (Democrats lose House seats)
  2. trickle (Democrats gain 0 to 10)
  3. swell (Democrats gain 11 to 24)
  4. wave (Democrats gain 25 to 35)
  5. flood (35 to 50)
  6. tsunami (50+)

perry: I think if the generic ballot stays in this range for a few months, Democrats should be panicking. But I don’t think they should panic now. I don’t know exactly what caused Trump and Republicans to make gains, but assuming that it’s the good economic news, is there a way for the GOP to keep touting this news, keep generating news about the economy? That will help their political standing. Also, we didn’t mention Russia or Mueller much here. More indictments/controversies on that front will basically drown out any good economic news.

micah: Yeah, that seems right.

And I’ll sign onto that nomenclature, Nate.

harry: My final thought is essentially this: It’s always great chatting with everyone. You make me laugh and smile. And thank you, reader, for reading.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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