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House Polls Show Very Close Races but Also Hints of Democratic Strength

House Polls Show Very Close Races but Also Hints of Democratic Strength

With just under two months until the midterms, the races that seem likely to decide control of Congress remain strikingly close, according to a first wave of New York Times Upshot/Siena College polls.To take over the House, Democrats need to wrest at least 23 individual districts from Republican control. We’ve started surveying dozens of the…


With just under two months until the midterms, the races that seem likely to decide control of Congress remain strikingly close, according to a first wave of New York Times Upshot/Siena College polls.

To take over the House, Democrats need to wrest at least 23 individual districts from Republican control. We’ve started surveying dozens of the most competitive districts and have finished polls in nine: seven tossup districts and two districts that lean Republican, according to the Cook Political Report.

In the seven tossup races,the result was within one point in five of them, though Democrats claimed a nine-point lead in Minnesota’s Third, where the incumbent, Erik Paulsen, trailed the Democrat, Dean Phillips, 51 percent to 42 percent. Republicans had an eight-point polling lead in each of the two races thought to lean Republican.

A close race in these contests is no surprise. Indeed, we asked Dave Wasserman of theCook Political Reportfor his expected results in these races, before we conducted the survey. On average, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans didbetter than expected. The Cook Political Report characterizes the Democrats as “substantial favorites to win control.”

Still, at this stage, there’s little hard evidence indicating that either party has claimed a clear and consistent edge.

A big reason is that the heart of the campaign season is only now getting underway, with most voters just starting to tune in. The polls contain intriguing hints of how the dynamics might shift in the coming weeks. In general, they bear out the expectations fed by special election results, strong Democratic fund-raising, national polls and the history of midterm elections that this will be a strong year for Democrats.

Democrats show unusual energy, outpacing Republicansin indicating their intention to vote.Republican incumbents show signs of weakness. And the national political environment appears as tough for Republicans in the battleground districts as one would expect based on the president’sapproval numbersandthe generic congressional ballot.

Democrats can take the House if they win about half of the races currently rated as tossups by the Cook Political Report — or, if they fall short in tossups, by claiming a few races that currently lean Republican.

Even though the two Republican-leaning districts we surveyed went as expected, the sheer number of races where Republicans are thought to have onlya modest advantage poses arisk to the party. If a few of these races slip into the tossup column, Democrats will claim a clearer advantage in the fight for control.

We’re just getting started

People who pay close attention to politics have been obsessing over the race for the House for a long time. Donors have given millions in otherwise obscure special congressional elections, and they’ve already donated millions to general election candidates.

Ordinary voters, though, don’t seem to have focused in yet. In eight of the nine races, more than 40 percent of voters said they didn’t have an opinion of the Democratic candidate. Amy McGrath, the former Marine fighter pilot who raised millions after a widely shared biographical ad, is the exception.

In general, all of the Democratic candidates have solid favorability numbers. There’s a reason for that: Democrats know their candidates pretty well, while independent and Republican voters do not. This could be a product of higher Democratic interest in the election, or maybe a result of contested primary races. Either way, their net-favorability advantage will probably decline over time, simply because a more Republican-leaning group of voters has yet to tune in.

Democrats seem excited

So far, Democrats are doing better among likely voters — those deemed to have a higher chance of turning out — than among registered voters.

Over all, Democrats lead by two points among likely voters, 46 percent to 44 percent, in the tossup races, while they lead by just one point among registered voters, 43-42.

It’s a small difference, but it’s striking in historical context. Republicans have almost always done better among likely voters than registered voters, and in recent midterm elections the gap has been particularly significant — perhaps as much as five or six points.

Democrats might have some additional upside, too. They lead by four points in the tossups among registered voters who say they’re “almost certain” to vote.

Many pollsters use a simple likely-voter model limited to this group. In our turnout modeling, we give everyone at least some chance of voting because, in the past, many people who said they wouldn’t vote ultimately showed up. And there are some people who say they will vote who stay home. Either way, it’s another indicator.

Democrats have the wind at their back

The overall national political environment, which seems to favor the Democrats, does appear to be filtering down to the battleground districts. President Trump has a 42 percent approval ratingon average in our seven tossup districts, about seven points beneath the 49 percent he won across the districts in 2016. You could roughly extrapolate that to a 39 percent approval rating nationwide, which is pretty close to recent national surveys.

In the generic ballot — which asks people whether they intend to vote for a Democrat or a Republican for Congress — Democrats have a three-point lead in these districts. It’s a modest advantage, but it’s also impressive for seven districts that voted for Mr. Trump by five points.

Republican incumbents don’t look strong

Republican incumbents haven’t fallen behind in most of the races we’ve polled, but their position doesn’t look too impressive, either.

In the tossup districts, only two Republicans — Andy Barr in Kentucky, who led by one point with 47 percent in Kentucky’s Sixth, and Dave Brat, who led by three points with 47 percent in Virginia’s Seventh — have held more than 45 percent of the vote.

And only two Republicans in the tossup districts — Mike Bost, who had a plus-10 favorability rating in Illinois’s 12th, and Mr. Brat, who had a plus-13 rating — had meaningfully positive net-favorability ratings. It’s hard to give them too much credit because these are districts where Mr. Trump won comfortably in 2016. The rest were at plus-two, or lower.

Two incumbents — Pete Roskam and Dana Rohrabacher — even had a negative favorability rating. Their deficit is particularly striking considering they are in districts where Republicans outnumber Democrats.

There was one Republican who stood out as particularly strong: Will Hurd, in Texas’ 23rd. This is a classic battleground district, but he had an impressive 51 percent favorable rating, with only 29 percent unfavorable.

Mr. Hurd voted against the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, andhe wrote an op-edin The New York Times suggesting that Mr. Trump had been manipulated by Russian intelligence. His efforts to distinguish himself from the national party appear to have paid off. The race had already been considered “lean Republican,” and he leads in our poll by eight points.

But Mr. Hurd is an exception. Over all, these G.O.P. incumbents enter the heart of the campaign season in a fairly vulnerable position. They don’t have a deep reservoir of good will or support to help them withstand a so-called wave political environment. Their best option might be to try to discredit their opponents through negative advertising. In some of these races, that has already begun.

In Kentucky’s Sixth, for instance, Republicans have begun to attack Ms. McGrath for saying she’s a feminist.

Yet Ms. McGrath is viewed positively by 51 percent of voters in Kentucky’s Sixth, which voted for Mr. Trump by 15 points. And perhaps surprisingly, voters in the district told us they were in favor of electing more feminists to public office, by a margin of 47 percent to 34 percent.

It’s not all about Trump, yet

If you’re a die-hard partisan,American politics is pretty straightforward. You know your party. You vote for your party.

So far, that has not been quite the case.

These districts voted very differently in the presidential election in 2016, with results ranging from Clinton plus-9 to Trump plus-49 in West Virginia’s Third.

In mostly white working-class areas with strong Democratic roots, Republican incumbents are struggling against Democrats who fit their districts a lot better than the national Democratic Party does.

In West Virginia’s Third, the pro-coal, pro-teachers’ union Democrat, Richard Ojeda, has a lot more to work with than the district’s presidential election results suggest or than Mr. Trump’s 62 percent favorability rating in the district would suggest.

Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a wide margin there, and respondents have a favorable opinion of Mr. Ojeda, 35 percent to 21 percent. That’s better than the favorability rating for his Republican opponent, Carol Miller.

Democrats, meanwhile, are struggling a bit in well-educated and traditionally Republican districts where the Republican incumbent is a much better fit for the district than Mr. Trump is.

Perhaps the best news for Democrats was the nine-point lead for Mr. Phillips, a political novice, in Minnesota’s Third, a well-educated suburban district outside Minneapolis that voted for Hillary Clinton by 9.5 points in 2016.

It’s surprising, but not entirely. In a similar race, Barbara Comstock, the Republican incumbent in Virginia’s 10th, is widely believed to be in a lot of trouble. Her district voted for Mrs. Clinton by a similar 10-point margin. And in Minnesota, Mr. Paulsen, unlike Ms. Comstock or Mr. Hurd, hasn’t taken many concrete steps to distinguish himself from the party. He voted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, for example.

Still, even in Minnesota’s Third, Democrats aren’t running ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s strong performance, according to our poll, even though Mr. Trump’s approval rating is just 33 percent in the district.

The polls we conduct in the coming weeks should give us a clearer idea of whether one party holds an edge.

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