The big election is just six months away. Much has happened since I last surveyed the campaign landscape: Joe Biden locked down the Democratic presidential nomination, the pandemic struck, and the economy tanked. (All in a month’s news, I suppose.) So what have those developments changed?
The Democrats remain likely to expand their majority in the House of Representatives. When they swept 41 Republicans out of office in 2018, they had a 6.7% national edge in Congressional preference polls. Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com currently gives them a 7.7% advantage. Rachel Bitecofer (who, sadly, lost a long-shot bid for tenure at Christopher Newport University) released her House forecast last week and sees a minimum three-seat gain for the Democrats, with eight further seats possible.
A year ago pundits considered the Senate beyond the Democrats’ reach, but Bitecofer believes the Dems are apt to pick up three seats, giving them an even fifty. She rates as toss-ups the races in Kansas and Montana. Assuming the Democrats lose both, they will need to reclaim the presidency to take over Mitch McConnell’s House of Horrors, as the vice president provides the tie-breaking vote. Fivethirtyeight.com hasn’t focused on the Senate since March 30, when analyst Nathaniel Rakich concluded “the most likely outcome is still that Republicans maintain control of the Senate, though perhaps with a reduced majority.” So along with the presidential returns, the results for the Senate will be a source of election night angst.
And what of those presidential returns?
Trump enjoyed a popularity bump when the coronavirus pandemic struck. His approval rating remains higher than usual, but is gradually regressing to the pre-pandemic norm of 41–43%. If events this extreme don’t change voters’ minds about him, it’s unlikely anything will. But we’ve known that all along, haven’t we?
Bitecofer’s updated forecast has the critical states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin going for Biden. She now sees Arizona going Democratic too, and rates Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and North Carolina too close to call. This stays true even if the Democrats run their usual inept campaign, begging Republicans to switch sides rather than motivating their own low-frequency voters. Recent polling backs Bitecofer’s prediction, especially with regard to Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Biden’s lead exceeds the margin of error. Biden’s advantage in Wisconsin is slim, but with wizardly Ben Wikler in charge of the party apparatus, Wisconsin Democrats recently overcame blatant obstruction to win a state supreme court election, an auspicious sign for November.
So despite Biden’s resemblance to a Democratic Warren Harding — no spark or vision beyond the comforting promise of “normalcy” — he retains the electoral edge. Trump and the Republicans are better campaigners, but they will struggle to traduce Biden; in contrast to Hillary Clinton, Biden has been a likable public figure for nearly half a century. The Tara Reade allegations will be used against him (I hope to address this troubling issue in a future post), and he should gird for a slew of de-contextualized and outright fabricated accusations. But as long as never-Trump conservatives, suburban moderates, mainstream Democrats, Democratic-leaning independents, purer-than-thou activists, and Bernie Bros remain angry enough to turn out for the half-a-loaf Biden, he should prevail.
If you’re worried the polls aren’t reliable this far from election day, well, maybe, but maybe not. I’m more worried about Republican voter suppression and fraud (Republican protestations on this score are projection, not reality) than errant polling. In fact, if the November results differ dramatically from aggregated polls such as fivethirtyeight.com’s, I’d interpret that as election theft — and the death of our democracy.