Midterms are mere 10 days away, but out­come un­cer­tain

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Dan Balz The Washington Post

Trust the polls, or go on in­stinct? Prog­nos­ti­caters and politi­cos look for re­li­able ev­i­dence to parse Tues­day’s vote.

This is the time in an elec­tion cy­cle when peo­ple who do pol­i­tics for a liv­ing are ner­vous. They look for ev­i­dence, fa­vor­able or un­fa­vor­able, they can trust. They weigh what polls tell them against what their in­stincts tell them, or against what they be­lieve can still hap­pen. It is a time of un­cer­tainty, even if a wave is com­ing.

On all the prin­ci­pal bat­tle­fields at play in the 2018 midterms — House, Se­nate and gover­nors — the land­scape is pop­u­lated with races con­sid­ered too close to call. Yes, strate­gists ac­knowl­edge that a few in­cum­bents are al­ready go­ing to lose, but those races tend to be the ex­cep­tions. In­stead, many races are in the toss-up cat­e­gory on the hand­i­cap­ping charts, in­clud­ing some that weren’t there a few weeks ago.

A po­lit­i­cal strate­gist who was once a se­nior of­fi­cial at one of the na­tional party com­mit­tees de­scribed his role in the clos­ing weeks of an elec­tion as that of a money man­ager shift­ing funds from one ac­count to an­other, do­ing triage as nec­es­sary on can­di­dates who have fal­tered while seiz­ing on races that have sud­denly be­come op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Much of that late money goes into late TV ads, and there are plenty of funds avail­able this year, par­tic­u­larly among Demo­cratic chal­lengers in House races. It is one of the fac­tors that gives Democrats op­ti­mism that they can cap­ture the House, that along with the num­ber of Repub­li­can re­tirees and the qual­ity of first­time can­di­dates.

TV may help push some can­di­dates over the line, but the real de­ter­min­ing fac­tor will be the mo­bi­liza­tion of vot­ers. Turnout, how­ever, can be un­pre­dictable. There are many ex­am­ples over the years of can­di­dates con­fi­dent of their lead in the fi­nal days, only to be swamped by un­ex­pect­edly strong turnout by the op­po­si­tion.

Democrats hope that dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will pro­duce turnout that ex­ceeds that of a nor­mal midterm. An­a­lysts track­ing early vot­ing have noted that, in some places, turnout is run­ning close to that of the early vote in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Whether that rep­re­sents ea­ger­ness to cast bal­lots or a sign that peo­ple who nor­mally sit out midterm elec­tions are en­gaged this year won’t be known un­til the polls close.

Trump has been do­ing ev­ery­thing he can to make sure any surge in turnout on be­half of Democrats is matched as much as pos­si­ble by turnout among Repub­li­cans. His cam­paign ac­tiv­ity is im­pres­sive for its breadth and near non­stop pace. But even the pres­i­dent is not in con­trol of events, as th­ese past few days have shown, and he wasn’t happy about it.

Trump sent off a tweet Fri­day morn­ing, hours be­fore FBI of­fi­cials an­nounced they had ar­rested Cesar Sayoc and charged him with send­ing 14 pipe bombs to peo­ple, most of whom the pres­i­dent has at­tacked pub­licly, and of­ten re­peat­edly. “Repub­li­cans are do­ing so well in early vot­ing, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb stuff’ hap­pens and the mo­men­tum greatly slows — news not talk­ing pol­i­tics,” the tweet read. “Very un­for­tu­nate, what is go­ing on. Repub­li­cans, go out and vote!”

As with so much about this pres­i­dent, the tweet was re­mark­able, if not pre­dictable. At a time when the full ap­pa­ra­tus of law en­force­ment at all lev­els was fo­cused on the threat of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence, when for­mer high govern­ment of­fi­cials and oth­ers were be­ing tar­geted for at­tack, when the per­pe­tra­tor was not pub­licly known to be in cus­tody, the pres­i­dent could only see the events through the nar­row par­ti­san and per­sonal lens of: what’s good or bad for me. He prefers that the news me­dia fo­cuses on the car­a­van of peo­ple mov­ing up from Cen­tral Amer­ica through Mexico.

Democrats are cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about tak­ing con­trol of the House and Repub­li­cans agree that is more likely than less likely. That would pro­duce a big change in Washington and a set­back for the pres­i­dent. But is this a wave com­ing or a tsunami? Or could Demo- crats still fall just short of the net 23 seats they need to win? It’s what keeps can­di­dates and staffs won­der­ing what more they can do.

What cre­ates un­cer­tainty about the House races is the fact that there are plenty of in­cum­bent Repub­li­cans who are polling be­low 50 per­cent, never a good sign. There are also many, many con­tests within the mar­gin of er­ror in the polls com­ing back at this point, which means Demo­cratic chal­lengers still have work to do. In change elec­tions, un­de­cided vot­ers usu­ally break against in­cum­bents rather than split evenly, and in change elec­tions, one party gains a greater share of the toss-up races.

The Washington Post and the Schar School at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity have been polling in 69 com­pet­i­tive dis­tricts, as com­piled by the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port. The most re- cent poll showed Democrats ahead in those dis­tricts by 50 per­cent to 47 per­cent; a sign of prob­lems for Repub­li­cans, be­cause those same dis­tricts went for the GOP col­lec­tively by dou­ble dig­its in 2016.

The Se­nate is in an­other place, with Repub­li­cans — op­er­at­ing with an ex­tremely fa­vor­able map — con­sid­ered fa­vorites to re­tain or ex­pand their ma­jor­ity. For­mer House Speaker Newt Gin­grich, R-Ga., speak­ing at an event hosted by The Post on Thurs­day, said the odds of Repub­li­cans emerg­ing with 57 seats (they cur­rently have 51) are greater than that of Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., be­com­ing ma­jor­ity leader.

Gin­grich said he wasn’t pre­dict­ing a pickup of that many seats for the GOP, just that the up­hill climb for the Democrats to win the ma­jor­ity ap­pears that steep. Not sur­pris­ingly, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who chairs the Demo­cratic Se­na­to­rial Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, dis­agreed with that assess­ment. Don’t count out Demo­cratic in­cum­bents in red states, he said.

The NBC-Wall Street Jour­nal poll found that only 18 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve the coun­try is mainly or to­tally di­vided, and 9 in 10 say it’s a se­ri­ous prob­lem for the coun­try. But noted that when peo­ple were asked who’s re­spon­si­ble: “Re­spon­dents re­ply that the fault lies with the other party.”

That’s the mood of the coun­try 10 days out from the elec­tion, which is why some mod­esty in mak­ing pre­dic­tions is in or­der. Con­di­tions and ge­og­ra­phy fa­vor Democrats in House races and Repub­li­cans in Se­nate races. Turnout pat­terns ap­pear to fa­vor Democrats, but they are not yet de­fin­i­tive. And at the cen­ter of the storm stands the pres­i­dent, de­ter­mined again to con­found the ex­perts.


Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has kept up a busy cam­paign sched­ule to boost GOP turnout.

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