Why Democrats shouldn't worry about the 2018 polls — just yet

The enthusiasm gap between the parties seems to be closing, but there's still plenty of time

By Matthew Rozsa
Published April 16, 2018 4:16PM (EDT)
 (Getty/Kena Betancur)
(Getty/Kena Betancur)

A new poll reveals that Republicans are improving in their chances against Democrats on generic ballots for the 2018 midterm elections — although that, in its own right, may not be cause for alarm.

Forty-seven percent of registered voters say they prefer the Democratic candidate in their district, while only 43 percent say they prefer the Republican candidate, according to a poll by Washington Post-ABC News. It's a considerable drop from where Democrats stood on the generic ballot in January. While there is only a 4-point difference between the two parties in April, there was a 12-point difference in January. Much of the change seems to be attributable to a slight improvement in Trump's approval rating (40 percent in April from 36 percent in January) and an improvement in Republican fortunes among white voters (the margin increased from five points in January to 14 points in April).

But, according to poll-watching experts, it seems to be too early to really worry for Democrats.

"[The results] weren't that different than Quinnipiac, but they were different than the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. So pick your poll, as usual," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told Salon. "And my reaction is, it's April."

Sabato pointed to the wildly inconsistent poll results about the 2018 midterms, with some polls finding that Democrats and Republicans had roughly equal enthusiasm and others saying that Democrats had a major edge over the GOP in that department.

"So which one are we to believe? And the answer is neither. It's April!" Sabato told Salon.

He added, "We've got an idea that Democrats probably have more enthusiasm. I subscribe to that. But what I don't know, and what no one can know, is whether that intensity and enthusiasm will last until November. All kinds of things happen. I've studied the history of elections and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the build-up of the Persian Gulf War for George H. W. Bush in 1990 and the lingering effects of 9/11. They all took midterms that might have cut substantially against the incumbent party and turned them into essentially a wash. You know, Bush Jr. gained a few, Bush Sr. lost a few, Kennedy lost a few, but essentially it was a status quo election."

Kevin Griffis, Vice President of Communications for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, also downplayed taking generic poll results too seriously this early.

"I think polls like that are going to bump up and down over the course of the months between now and November, but we don't really feel like this measure is particularly meaningful," Griffis told Salon. "If you look at May in 2010, about six months before Republicans won more than sixty seats, that same poll was tied 44-44."

He added, "I think we're primarily looking at two measures. The one is just most recent performance in elections, and if you look at a series of elections since Donald Trump, you see Democrats over-performing and progressives over-performing their historic performance. That's true whether you look at a race like Ralph Northam's race in Virginia [for governor], which was supposed to be tight but really turned into something of a rout, to the really unexpected victory in Alabama [between Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore] to the most recent election in Pennsylvania where [Democrat] Conor Lamb won [over Republican Rick Saccone] and again health care was the single most important thing, the single most important issue in the race."

Sabato echoed Griffis's assessment of how the polls were looking at Democratic enthusiasm versus Republican enthusiasm.

"Polling is a rough measurement of public opinion, rougher than I think it used to be, and enthusiasm is a difficult quality to measure. Because, at this point especially, you're modeling the election on past turnouts," Sabato told Salon.

He added, "I do think they're underweighting the effect of Democratic enthusiasm. That would be my argument."

Griffis also expressed confidence that the actions of Trump and other Republican politicians throughout the country would inevitably help the Democratic Party's cause.

"I think part of that is the actions of the Trump administration, and in state houses really across the country, that is what is really galvanizing people. The attacks on health care and rights over time, this is what is motivating people," Griffis told Salon. "I think one of the reasons that we launched today the Win Justice electoral program with SEIU and Center for Community Change Action and Color of Change PAC is that we are seeking to continue that conversation, to make sure that we can continue to engage people in a meaningful way."

Other polls have supported Griffis' assertion about health care being the most important issue to voters. As CNBC recently explained when looking toward the 2018 midterm elections:

Recent polling has shown the importance of those issues. In an Economist/YouGov poll taken in early April, 15 percent of surveyed U.S. adults listed health care as the most important issue to them, while another 15 percent chose Social Security. Those were the most frequently chosen topics, ahead of even the economy at 11 percent.

Twenty-three percent of responding voters in a March Quinnipiac poll listed health care as the most important midterm issue for them, ahead of every other topic including the economy.

Polling suggests Trump and the GOP's efforts to reshape the American health-care system have not resonated with voters. Thirty-six percent of respondents to the Economist/YouGov poll said they strongly disapprove of how the president has handled health care, compared with only 15 percent who said they strongly approve.

Among independents, 32 percent said they strongly disapprove, while 13 percent said they strongly approve.

Another issue that may prove pivotal in the 2018 midterm elections is gun control. According to the Post/ABC poll, 52 percent of Americans identified the issue as either "extremely important" or "very important," while 47 percent of Americans said it was "somewhat important" or "not important."

Also working against Republicans in 2018 is the fact that, with rare exceptions, the party which holds the presidency tends to suffer great losses in midterm congressional elections. This was most conspicuously true for Barack Obama in 2010 and 2014, George W. Bush in 2006 and Bill Clinton in 1994.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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2018 Midterm Elections Democratic Party Democrats Donald Trump Larry Sabato Republican Party Republicans