reporter's notebook

How To Think About What’s Going On In The Polls Ahead Of The Midterms

October 10, 2018 3:43 p.m.

We’ve got less than four weeks until Election Day — but while the broad parameters of the midterm battlefield are set, how these races break are still anyone’s guess.

Republicans in red states and districts are clearly feeling better about their chances following the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and Democrats are seeing numbers in those places that are making them sweat. But it’s unclear if the GOP’s Kavanaugh bump is helping anyone in swing states — polling has been conflicted on this. And there’s no way to tell right now whether this fight will prove an ephemeral boost for red-state Republican candidates that feels like a long-forgotten memory by Election Day, or whether the moment helped them nationalize races against tough opponents and turn the tide in key Senate battles.

The impossible question to answer right now: What will we be talking about the last week of the election?

I often said heading into 2016 that whichever candidate we were talking about the last week was going to lose. Today, that may be true again: If President Trump is once again dominating the headlines with a bad news cycle, that could spell doom for his party.

Reporters and voters tend to overreact to whatever’s in the headlines at the moment, expecting a lasting effect. But especially now, with Trump turning over the news cycle with whirlwind-like speed, a month remains an eternity in politics. We’re not even a month removed from Paul Manafort turning state’s evidence, and folks can barely remember that happened.

So I honestly doubt that Kavanaugh will be the main fuel in most races. But the fight over his nomination did coincide with Republicans evening the spending in some key races and their base starting to come home. It’s hard to untangle the three things from one another, but my guess is some if not all of that will have some staying power.

The Kavanaugh impact has been most pronounced in the red states that Democrats must win to have any shot at Senate control: North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Tennessee. If they get wiped out in those states, they will head into 2019 with fewer Senate seats than they have today.

But the key thing to remember is the Senate map is vastly different than the House map, which is vastly different from the governors’ map.

Control of the Senate is mostly being fought out in deep red territory that’s much more rural than the nation as a whole, so anything that riles up both sides is helpful to the GOP. Trump is most focused on the Senate, it seems, or at least is inadvertently helping his party the most in those races.

The House field of battle is GOP-leaning overall but is much more suburban — that means, in House races, Trump’s antics hurt his incumbents more than they help them.

And the governors’ map this year most closely mirrors where the 2020 presidential battlefield will be. It includes many midwestern battlegrounds — Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio — where Trump did much better than previous GOP nominees but which are swingy and where Dems hope to do very well this fall. There are also a lot of close battles in the Sun Belt: Florida, Georgia and Nevada.

Republicans hold almost all of these governor seats in both the midwestern battlegrounds and the Sun Belt right now.

State-level issues obviously matter more in governors’ races — that’s why Oregon, Connecticut, Oklahoma and South Dakota all look somewhat competitive. But governors’ races will provide the best test of what a true swing state looks like this year.

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