The US midterm elections, in which the country will choose a new slate of federal lawmakers on Nov. 6, have the feel of a referendum on unpopular president Donald Trump. And a new poll from PRRI, a non-profit social research institution, dissects that unpopularity:
You’d be forgiven for assuming—based on only these survey results—that Democrats will have an easy time defeating their Republican opponents. But despite 48% of registered voters who took the survey saying they would vote for Democrats versus 39% for Republicans, there’s no guarantee that the opposition Democrats will win a majority in the House of Representatives, much less in the more challenging terrain of the Senate. Why is that?
The PRRI survey tracks public opinion writ large, not the opinion of voters. Only 54% of those surveyed said they will vote, and that’s likely over-stating their participation. Just under 62% of eligible Americans voted in the 2016 presidential elections, but votes held in the middle of a presidential term tend to attract fewer participants; in 2014, voter participation was 36.4%, the lowest in 70 years.
The intensity of this election promises more participation than in 2014, but likely less than in 2016. For example: 80% of seniors say they will vote, but just 30% of young people. When pundits say it all comes down to turnout, this is exactly what they mean.
Each US state can construct its own Congressional districts, and, surprise, surprise, when they are constructed by partisan officials, they tend to benefit one party. The 2010 elections, which saw Republicans make major gains nationally, preceded a round of national redistricting.
In March, researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that Democrats would need to win the national popular vote by 11% to win control of the House because of this structural advantage, while FiveThirtyEight projects they will need to win the popular vote by 5.6%. That means, just as in 2016 presidential election, Democrats could win more votes than Republicans but still be accorded less power.
On the Senate side, where roughly one-third of the chamber’s seats are contested every two years, this is a tough cycle for Democrats. They need a net gain of just four seats to win a majority, but they are busy defending candidates in swing states like Missouri, Indiana, and Florida as well as in Republican-leaning Montana and West Virginia. Meanwhile, their pick-up opportunities are also in contested states like Arizona and Nevada, with longer shots in Tennessee and Texas.
In many states, lawmakers have sought to make it difficult for people to vote. They often cite voter fraud as their motivation, but independent researchers say such fraud is incredibly rare.
In North Dakota, home to vulnerable Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp, a new law enacted by the Republican legislature would not allow people to register to vote using a post-office box as their mailing address. This was clearly designed to disenfranchise Native American voters there, who don’t usually use street addresses on their reservations.
In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also a candidate for governor, used a law that requires an “exact match” between registration information and identification—so a missing middle name or hyphen could prevent voting. Kemp shifted the registration of 50,000 voters, two-thirds of them black, to “pending,” a move organizations like the American Civili Liberties Union says is intended to drive down turnout.
Sometimes, it’s simpler: States simply close polling places, driving up lines and making voting more difficult at the remaining sites.
Many civil liberties groups say the answer is automatic voter registration, making election day a holiday, or just making it easier to vote by expanding online voting, early voting, and voting by mail.
The majority of Americans say they support higher taxes and marijuana legalization. By and large, those policies remain dead in the water in Congress. Though political winds can shift quickly, part of the reason is that people who hold these positions express themselves less intensely than those who believe taxes should be low and cannabis should be illegal, both before election day by volunteering or donating, and in terms of voting.
Donald Trump’s presidency does appear to have increased the intensity of Democratic voters, judging by small-dollar fundraising and volunteering data. In the PRRI survey, 63% of Democrats said they planned to vote, versus 59% of Republicans. An earlier PRRI survey found that Democratic candidates had a 9 percentage point advantage over their Republican opponents. Part of that is policy: The top issue for most voters is health care costs, where Democrats at least have answers that Republicans don’t.
This has provoked a response from the White House: The president has been working to electrify his base with white nationalist messaging focused on a group of refugees in Mexico moving toward the US, even deploying the military to the border despite little sign of any new threat. Today, he claimed he would work to eliminate birthright citizenship, a longtime priority of white nationalists that also happens to be unconstitutional.
The PRRI survey makes clear that a huge disparity between the Republican and Democratic parties right now is immigration policy:
Democrats may have an intensity advantage coming into November, but Trump clearly believes that if he can frighten enough Americans with fears of foreign invaders, that balance may shift.