Analysis: Red Wave? Hard To See One Now

Red Wave? Hard to See One Now – A few weeks ago I was helping Future Majority make sense of the early data from its new polls of Hispanic voters in AZ, NV and PA and we came across something remarkable - the biggest gap between the Democratic and Republican candidates came in the named candidate head to heads.  Other measures - the generic vote, party favorabilities, Biden favorability, the Biden/Trump 2020 - would have suggested that gap between the GOP and Dem candidates running in 2022 be a bit closer.  But when the candidates were named in the three states the spread looked more like the big 2018 year for Democrats, not 2020, which was just a good year.

So I decided to spend some time looking to see if this kind of trend showed up in other publicly available poll data.  My operating theory of this election since last summer has been that the Rs would have a very low ceiling this cycle, as they have had since Trump won the nomination in 2016 – 46.1% in 2016, 44.8% in 2018, 46.9% in 2020.  In the last two elections a clear anti-MAGA majority emerged in America, with Democrats winning by an average of 6.5 pts in historically high turnout elections. This is rough math for a party which has made the consequential choice of doubling down on a politics – MAGA – which has had more people vote against it than any other political movement in American history.  So it's been my belief for sometime that this election wasn't going to necessarily behave like a traditional midterm, as the Republicans had run towards a deeply unpopular politics, not run away from it. That a red wave, while possible, was unlikely.

What I found in reviewing recent publicly available polling of Senate and Governor's races - actual heads to heads, not other less important measures - was a competitive not a wave election (see this thread for the data).  What was most surprising is how strong the Senate currently looks for Democrats.  None of the 4 most endangered Dem incumbents are clearly behind (AZ, GA, NH, NV) and the latest polling has Democrats ahead in 4 GOP held seats – NC, OH, PA, WI (here's the new WI poll showing Ron Johnson in serious trouble, and another bad PA poll for the Rs).  The two PA polls showing Fetterman with 6 and 9 point leads over Oz are the most significant of the lot, and let’s be clear about what they mean – that as of today it's easier to see how Democrats pick up a Senate seat than it is to see how Republican get the single seat they need to gain the majority. 

Any fair analysis of this cycle would work hard to balance the obvious challenges for Democrats – Biden’s low approval rating/inflation, etc – with the really significant challenges Republican’s face – blown COVIDongoing radicalization/insurrection, terrible candidates, horrifically divided party, very low party approval, ending of Roe, return of mass shooting, etc. Most of what we've gotten so far from many analysts is why the election is going to be tough for Democrats, leaving out all the clear and serious liabiliities Republicans will be struggling to overcome this year.  Given the data presented here that downplaying of the GOP's struggles this cycle needs to change.  A clear sign that Republicans know this thing ain't breaking their way right is now is Senator McConnell's working with Democrats on gun safety legislation, an almost unimaginable event.  For Mitch, that he needed to do something like this is a sign of a weak hand, not a strong one.  It is an affirmation this election is not performing as Republicans had hoped, or as much the media is presenting it today. 

I wrote the following in a recent memo, The Strategic Context for the 2022 Election is Changing: "New events – Russia’s ongoing aggression, mass shootings, the end of Roe, a more complete understanding of MAGA’s attack on our political system – are together creating a new strategic framework or context for US politics now.  That new strategic context is giving Joe Biden and the Democrats the opportunity to reframe the economic conversation, something the White House began in earnest yesterday; and it will make it far more likely Democrats will be successful at labeling Republicans out of the mainstream, extreme, unfit.  While these new realities may not be showing up in polling yet, it is our belief that the election has fundamentally changed in the last few weeks, something that will become clearer to all in the coming days."

What I found in my research suggests that maybe these GOP vulnerabilities are beginning to show up in polls, and that this election may be much competitive today than is understood; that perhaps fear of MAGA remains the most powerful force in American politics as it has been the last two cycles, more powerful even than disapointment in Joe Biden. Does that mean a red wave won't eventually form? We don't know. We do know, however, that it hasn't formed yet. Of the 10 most recent generic ballots in 538's tracker, Rs only led in 3, and the average was 42.2 Dem, 41.9 GOP.  Again, not a wave.

Finally, a note on election analysis.  This is my 16th or 17th cycle working full time in Democratic politics.  I have seen a lot over those years.  Been on both sides of waves, lost and won a Presidential election.  Had lots of election night joy, and lots of heartbreak too.  What I've learned is that every election is unique, and none is like any other. There are no ironclad political rules, or immutable political physics.  That because something has happened before it doesn't mean it will happen again. That to understand an election you have to follow the data, not history, not wives tales and wise guys, but data. That's what I work so hard to do, every day.  And that data I am seeing suggests this is far more likely to be a competitive election than a wave. And frankly, given what has happened to the GOP, that shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone. 

But of course that can change.  Which is why you should keep coming back and reading our stuff.  You can catch me going more in depth about this analysis in two new pods – the Arizona based Light Beer Dark Money show, and Deep State Radio with David Rothkopf, EJ Dionne and Kavita Patel.  They are both well worth your time.

This analysis has been updated and expanded since it was first published.