There was a Harry Enten column over the weekend whose basic thrust was that the political environment was moving against Democrats, on the rather flimsy evidence of a Connecticut State Senate special election, Gavin Newsom being in some trouble in California, and the generic ballot polling weakening in recent weeks. Now, that’s slightly unfair to Enten, whose special election point was a bit stronger than just that race – in something like 17 specials since July, the results had gotten, on average, worse for Democrats – but his basic thrust was that those races, the Generic Ballot, and California were all warning signs that should panic Democrats. The next day, NBC/WSJ polling showed a D+1 Generic Ballot, and the concern trolling from many on the basis of Enten’s piece intensified. The problem is, what happens to that narrative when it runs into a polling day as good for Democrats as Thursday was?
In California, Newsom’s up 15% according to the first even remotely decent poll there in a while, and while it is Change Research – with the health warnings that come with their polls – even a five point house effect adjustment for their Democratic biases would put recall down 10%, a substantial improvement on the position of the polls weeks ago and a positive trend line. If you look at returned ballots, and benchmark it to 2020’s timeline, you see an electorate that might be at most a few points more Republican than at this point in the 2020 cycle, a year in which the GOP lost the state by 30%. Unless a ton of those Democratic-registered votes are coming back YES on Recall – which, the fact that Newsom has successfully made the race him or Larry Elder sharply reduces the chances of – the recall has no chance of succeeding, and the chances of recall winning by something like 15% should be rising sharply. And, as much as a theoretical 15% lead would be a retreat on his 22% margin in the 2018 Governor’s election, that would be in the realm of “campaigns factors and recall weirdness”, not “Democrats are nationally in trouble”, and it would be difficult for any serious analyst to write that such a result augured anything bad for 2022.
Ah, but what about Virginia, where Biden won by 10, and the polls aren’t showing anything like that sort of lead? Yesterday a poll showed McAuliffe up 9, with two of the last three independent polls showing 8% and 9% leads. This isn’t to show the race is over, although it does seem like the race is slipping away from any form of competitiveness for Youngkin – and that those Republican internals showing things close between him and McAuliffe weren’t accurate, and weren’t being responded to by McAuliffe internals not because they didn’t have any good internals, but because they didn’t need to. A Pod Save America sponsored Change poll showed a 6% lead, but from my memory, PSA-sponsored Change polls weren’t particularly favourable for Democrats compared to the polling averages at the time when they did them at points in 2020. (Obviously, they were very favourable compared to reality, but that wasn’t because of partisan bent, just the broad polling miss.) Also, not that this is a guarantee of accuracy, but the independent poll yesterday did pass a basic smell test in terms of what its crosstabs said – it showed Youngkin matching Trump’s margin with whites and McAuliffe up 83-6 with Black voters, which while a bit lower than Biden’s 81% lead, is well within reason. Being plausible is not the same as being correct, it needs to be stressed – but it can’t easily be dismissed as some polls can be.
And the last poll of the day that was notable was the large dump of YouGov Generic Ballot data going back months, but the main takeaway is that this week, YouGov has Congressional Democrats up 7%. Remember, they won the House by 3.1% this year, and such a lead – were it replicated under even the most pessimistic scenarios under new lines – would easily see a Democratic majority returned to the House. Now, is it likely? Almost assuredly not, but when the Generic Ballot polling is as spotty, and of mostly low quality, one of the world’s few great pollsters showing a sizable Democratic lead has to be understood as good news. Oh, and to Enten’s point about the Generic Ballot lead halving in recent weeks? If you take an unweighted average of every poll in 538’s list of Generic Ballot polls with August field dates, you get a D+2.6. If you take McLaughlin out of that average, the biased jokes of a pollster that they are, and you get a D+3.3. Again, we just won the House with a D+3.1 with (some) room to spare.
Does any of this mean that 2022 is a fucking lock, and that Democrats will win 225 House seats and 3 or 4 Senate seats? Of course not. But if you’re willing to overread one bad week of data for Democrats, and you’re not willing to do the same when they have a day extremely consistent with the theory of 2022 that I have been a leading espouser of, then it stops being psephology and starts to become hackery. Obviously, this could be a false high, a fake signal of hope, and the polls could be shit again. But you don’t get to uncritically report what polls say when they move against Democrats and then disbelieve them when they’re good for Democrats. In terms of what it all means, the three polls yesterday tell us exactly nothing about 2022. But yesterday was about as good a day for the chorus of 2022 Democratic optimists as one could ever have expected, and it better be covered with the same breathless abandon as the slip was. That it won’t be doesn’t change the fact that the political hopes of the Democratic Party just had a very good day.