Before you read any further, let’s get one thing straight: It’s still pretty early to trust general-election polls. In addition to the small but significant error inherent in polls taken six months before Election Day, the coronavirus pandemic has made the fall political environment extremely uncertain. But some recent Senate polls have been so eye-popping that we’re compelled to write about them — if only to sound a note of caution.
Those polls imply a Democratic wave of truly epic proportions. In the space of just two days last week, we got:
- Two polls of Colorado: A Keating Research/Onsight Public Affairs/Melanson survey giving Democrat John Hickenlooper an 18-point lead over Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and a Montana State University Bozeman/University of Denver poll giving Hickenlooper a nearly identical 17-point lead over Gardner.
- A Montana State University Bozeman/University of Denver poll of Montana giving Democrat Steve Bullock a 7-point lead over Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
- And a Civiqs/Daily Kos survey giving Democrat Cal Cunningham a 9-point lead over Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
To put it mildly, these polls were out of step with our previous perceptions of these races. Election handicappers believe Colorado is a toss-up or perhaps tilts a bit toward Democrats. And although Bullock’s entry into the race was expected to make Montana competitive, handicappers still think it favors Republicans. Likewise, the North Carolina Senate race is universally seen as a toss-up, not a healthy Democratic lead.
So it’s fair to wonder how accurate these polls are. Individually, there’s something to nitpick about all four of them. None of the pollsters has a robust enough track record for us to confidently assign them a precise pollster rating. Plus, all four polls were conducted online, and according to Nate Cohn of The New York Times’s The Upshot, online polls of states, especially small ones like Montana, are a largely unproven medium. Finally, Keating Research/Onsight Public Affairs/Melanson and Civiqs are both Democratic pollsters, and partisan polls have a tendency to show optimistic results for their side.
Whenever an attention-grabbing poll is released, we always counsel readers to look at them in the context of other recent surveys. However, a lack of high-quality, nonpartisan polling makes that tricky in these races. In North Carolina, two other polls conducted within the past month actually agreed that Cunningham led by the high single digits — but one was an unweighted online poll, and the other was from a Democratic pollster. More reliable may be a SurveyUSA poll showing Cunningham and Tillis within the margin of error, but that’s just one poll vs. three others now that disagree.
We’re flying even blinder in Montana, where the only other confirmed poll was sponsored by a liberal group that has endorsed Bullock and showed a tied race. And in Colorado, these were the first two surveys we’ve seen since last October — although the fact that they agreed makes their findings more credible than either poll would have been on its own.
In the face of such a pickle, let’s turn to the much more robust universe of congressional generic ballot polling. At the same time these Senate polls were coming out, we also got a poll from highly-rated Monmouth University that gave Democrats a 10-point lead over Republicans in the generic congressional ballot. Even the average generic-ballot poll gives Democrats an 8-point lead. These polls obviously point toward a strongly Democratic national environment, but not the kind of blue tsunami that would lead to an 18-point Democratic lead in the purple state of Colorado or a 7-point Democratic lead in the red state of Montana. That said, as popular former or sitting governors, Hickenlooper and Bullock are very strong candidates, so that could be making up the difference, although even that is a reach.
Ultimately, it’s hard to know at this point if these polls are outliers or early indicators of an overwhelming Democratic electoral environment. But the fact that they are even remotely plausible reflects a vulnerability for the GOP in the age of the coronavirus. Americans are souring on President Trump’s handling of the crisis, and congressional Republicans are reportedly worried that it will drag them down too. The pandemic has also devastated the economy, which has historically been bad news electorally for the party in the White House. In the worst-case scenario, the outbreak could lead to a Democratic wave à la 2008, when an unpopular Republican president and a tanking economy helped elect President Barack Obama and gave Democrats full control of the federal government.
Or not. As we said at the beginning, there is still plenty of time for the political environment to change. The health and economic situation could improve by the fall (or it could worsen). Another hot-button political issue could intervene. Or these polls could have missed the mark — it’s still six months out, after all. In the end, all these polls do is tell us something we should have already known: A second consecutive Democratic wave election is on the table. But it’s not dinner time yet.