Control of the Senate is coming down to this hidden dynamic

Control of the Senate is coming down to this hidden dynamic

Control of the US Senate will be decided next week in cross-pressured states where most voters disapprove of President Joe Biden’s performance but also express unfavorable views about their state’s Republican Senate nominee.

Public polls show Biden’s job approval rating is consistently below 50%, and often well below that, in all the states most likely to determine the Senate majority – even though they’re almost all states he carried in 2020. Over the past three decades, it has become increasingly rare for Senate candidates on either side to win election in states where voters hold such negative views of a president from their own party.

In this stormy sea, the biggest lifeline still available for Democrats is the large number of voters in those battleground states who view the Republican Senate candidates as extreme, unqualified, or both. Recent public polls by CNN and other media organizations have found that more voters hold unfavorable than favorable views of virtually all the GOP nominees in the key states – including Blake Masters in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Adam Laxalt in Nevada, Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, J.D. Vance in Ohio, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. Negative assessments of the Democratic candidates in those states have been rising as well, as they face a barrage of Republican attack ads, often tying them to Biden. Even so, in most (though not all) cases, voters hold a relatively more favorable view of the Democratic candidate than the Republican, polls show.

The fulcrum in the campaign’s final days may be whether the last remaining voters are moved more by these personal doubts about the GOP contenders or by their policy objections to Biden’s performance at a time when polls show that most Americans disapprove of how he has handled crime, the border, and above all the economy and inflation. The recent CNN polls in several key Senate races show that a large, and potentially decisive, slice of voters both disapprove of Biden’s performance and view the GOP nominee unfavorably: 9% in Wisconsin, 11% in Nevada, 13% in Pennsylvania and 15% in Arizona, according to detailed results provided by the CNN polling unit.

“The real question comes down to that group of independents in the middle, and who votes at the end,” says Paul Maslin, a long-time Democratic pollster. “Is it people saying, ‘I hate inflation, crime is wrecking this big city I live in,’ or people saying, ‘I’m sorry but Herschel Walker is a clown, Mehmet Oz is a clown. … Blake Masters is a joke,’ and they go back to [the Democrats]? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

This tension represents another dimension of the “double negative election,” in which most voters are expressing doubts about each party. Its impact is evident in the contrasting ad strategies of the two sides. While Republicans have spent heavily tying Democratic candidates to Biden, particularly around inflation, crime and the border, Democrats have devoted much of their messaging to raising doubts about their Republican rivals, particularly on abortion and in many cases their personal ethics. Republicans are working to nationalize the Senate races, while Democrats are trying to localize and personalize them.

The challenge for Democrats in this situation is the breadth and consistency of Biden’s struggles. Nationally, Biden’s job approval rating on election day next week may not look much different than the modest 45% that exit polls recorded for then-President Donald Trump in 2018.

But there is a key difference between the two men’s position. Although Trump’s national number was relatively weak, his approval rating on election day 2018 reached above 50% in multiple states, exit polls found. Notably, Trump was at 50% or more in all four states where Republican challengers beat Democratic Senate incumbents that year – Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota.

That’s a stark contrast to now, when public polls do not show Biden at 50% in any of the states with the most closely contested Senate races and more often place him somewhere between about 45% at the high end and 36-40% at the low. The most recent CNN polls, for instance, put Biden’s approval at 45% in Pennsylvania, 43% in Wisconsin and just 41% in Nevada and Arizona. Recent polls by the non-partisan Marist Institute for Public Opinion put Biden’s approval at 40% or less in North Carolina, Ohio and even Colorado, a state he won by double digits. New York Times/Siena College polls released Monday likewise showed Biden’s approval rating below 40% in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia and only slightly above that threshold in Pennsylvania.

Democratic hopes over the summer that Biden’s approval rating would steadily rise through Election Day, lifting their candidates in the process, have been dashed largely because of the persistence of the highest inflation in 40 years.

“The big problem for Democrats is things have not gotten better in people’s eyes, regardless of what they have done in passing legislation and what good it might do in the future,” says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “If inflation had come down from where it has been, they would be in better shape. But you can’t convince people that things are going better when their own experience tells them that it’s not.”

Weak numbers in a state for a president have increasingly spelled defeat for Senate candidates from his party.

In Senate races, the unmistakable long-term trend is for attitudes about the sitting president to exert increasing influence over the results, often overshadowing views of the competing candidates. In many ways, Senate (and even more so House races) have become more akin to contests in a parliamentary system, where fewer voters are weighing the relative individual merits of the two contenders and instead are basing their decision more on which party they want to control Congress – a decision shaped heavily by their views about the incumbent president.

“Over the past twenty or thirty years, what we’ve seen is a growing nationalization of these congressional races where there is a closer connection between opinions about national issues and national political leaders and how people vote in these House and Senate elections,” says Abramowitz. “It used to be easier for incumbents to run pretty far ahead of a president from their own party’s approval rating based on their reputation in their state or district, their constituency service, name recognition, things that you gain from being an incumbent. Over time that value has decreased.”

The results in Senate races through the 21st century underscore Abramowitz’ point. In 2018, Republican Senate candidates lost all 10 races in states where the exit polls recorded Trump’s approval at 48% or less. In the GOP’s 2010 sweep, Democrats lost 13 of the 15 Senate races in states where exit polls put then-President Barack Obama’s approval rating at 47% or less. During the Democratic “thumping” in 2006, Republicans lost 19 of the 20 Senate races in the states where exit polls showed George W. Bush with an approval rating of 45% or below. In each case, despite the national tide flowing against them, the president’s party won most of the Senate races in states where his approval ratings exceeded those levels.

This history means that to hold the Senate, Democrats will need multiple candidates to run farther ahead of the approval rating for a president from their own party than almost all candidates on either side have managed in recent years. And the breadth of Biden’s weakness means that Democratic candidates today are confronting a near universal undertow that Republicans did not face as uniformly in 2018.

Still the 2018 precedent offers some hope for Democrats that they can separate themselves from views about the sitting president. In most cases, the Senate results in competitive states that year did follow attitudes about the president: Republicans won seven races where Trump’s approval rating stood at 49% or above, while losing, as noted above, all 10 where he reached only 48% or less.

But four other Democrats in 2018 defied that trend to win in states where Trump’s approval stood at 50% or more. Those four Democratic victors included incumbents Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Jon Tester in Montana and Sherrod Brown in Ohio as well as challenger Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona.

Just like Democrats now, all of them then had to win in a state where majority opinion about the president favored the other party. In 2018, that meant they were running upstream against a majority that approved of a Republican president; today it means that Democratic candidates are facing a majority that disapproves of a Democratic president.

Manchin, Tester, Brown and Sinema all won because they captured a higher share of voters who approved of Trump’s performance than their Republican opponent won among voters who disapproved of his performance, according to exit polls. Now Democratic candidates in the decisive states face the reverse challenge: they must win a higher share of voters who disapprove of Biden than their Republican opponent wins among the voters who approve of him.

So far, public polls show Democratic Senate candidates meeting that test to varying degrees. In the latest round of CNN state surveys conducted by SSRS in mid-October, for instance, Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly in Arizona and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, as well as challengers Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin and John Fetterman in Pennsylvania were all winning at least 11% of voters who disapproved of Biden and losing no more than 4% of voters who approved of his performance. Kelly, most strikingly, captured almost one-fifth of voters who disapproved of Biden against Masters in the CNN Arizona poll. The New York Times/Siena polls released Monday likewise showed Democrats winning about 15% of voters who disapproved of Biden in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania and, stunningly, nearly one-fourth of them in Arizona.

J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, the leading Democratic super PAC, argues that personal contrasts largely explain that unusually high Democratic support among voters dissatisfied with Biden. “I agree with Mitch McConnell on one thing: candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome in Senate races,” Poersch said. “Our Democratic candidates have strong track records of delivering for their states and a demonstrated ability to create their own environment, while Republicans are offering up a roster of extremists who are totally out of step.”

But in the 2018 exit polls, no Republican Senate candidate ultimately won more than 8% of voters who disapproved of Trump, and many of them captured only 4-5%. That history raises the question of whether Democratic Senate candidates can sustain the elevated levels of support polls now record for them among voters who disapprove of Biden. They also face the very real risk that even if they can run unusually well among Biden disapprovers, it might still not be enough to survive if there are simply too many of those disapproving voters in the final electorate.

The CNN mid-October polls raised that possibility by showing Cortez Masto and Barnes still narrowly trailing even though they were attracting double-digit support among voters who disapprove of Biden. Gene Ulm, a Republican pollster, says he believes the final electorate will tilt even more toward Republican voters dissatisfied with Biden than polls now project. The reason, he argues, is that in the end, disenchantment with current conditions and Biden’s performance will turbocharge more turnout from Republicans, and depress turnout more from Democrats, than most models now anticipate. “The composition of the electorate … is going to crush everything,” he says flatly.

Even in such an environment, Ulm acknowledges, weak personal images may sink some GOP Senate (and governor) nominees. “I think that is the only hope and it may save them against the weakest candidates,” he says, “but not anybody other than that.” He predicts that discontent with Biden and the desire for a change in direction will allow multiple Republican candidates to win who are viewed unfavorably by more voters than view them favorably.

Mike Noble, an independent pollster in Phoenix, sees more opportunity for Democrats to separate from the president, at least in Arizona. In a poll released Monday by his firm, OH Predictive Insights, Noble said Kelly narrowly led Masters, even though a clear majority of Arizona likely voters expressed a negative view on Biden. One reason for Kelly’s lead, Noble said, is that the poll found almost one-fifth of voters who were unfavorable toward Biden also expressed negative views about Masters. Those ambivalent voters, Noble said, were backing Kelly over Masters by more than eight-to-one.

Noble says Kelly is benefiting from campaign fundamentals: the Democrat has significantly outspent, and also more successfully occupied the center, than his Republican rival. But Noble also believes that Kelly is surmounting disenchantment with Biden in part because some voters are already looking past the president as they assess the parties. “The [president’s] job approval, for whatever reason, is not having as much effect,” Noble says. “People have accepted it’s Joe Biden, and pat him on the head, push him along, so you are not seeing that direct connection” to the Senate vote.

The 2018 precedent testifies both to the opportunity that doubts about individual GOP Senate nominees create for Democrats – and also to its limits. One reason both Manchin and Tester survived – despite Trump’s robust approval rating in their states that year – was that a majority of voters in the exit polls held a negative personal view about their Republican opponent. Exit polls did not measure personal favorability of the candidates in Ohio and Arizona that year, but pre-election polls also showed the GOP nominees in those states facing broadly negative assessments as well.

On the other hand, Democratic incumbents Bill Nelson in Florida and Joe Donnelly in Indiana had slightly better net favorable ratings than their Republican opponents that year, the exit polls found. And yet both Democrats lost anyway, in states where most voters approved of Trump’s performance. In other words, their personal favorability could not overcome majority opinion about the president that favored the other party. That’s an ominous precedent for Democrats such as Cortez Masto, Warnock and even Kelly.

The four Democrats who won in Trump-favoring states in 2018 show it’s still possible for personal views about Senate candidates to outweigh broad assessments about the country’s direction and the president’s performance. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine provided another example in 2020 when she won reelection in a state where nearly three-fifths of voters disapproved of Trump because roughly one-fourth of those disapproving voters, an incredibly high number, voted for her anyway.

Such exceptions have become rare in modern US politics. Because Biden’s standing is so weak in so many places, to hold the Senate, Democrats will almost certainly need a lot more of them.

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