KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The Democratic primary race has been very stable, with the biggest exception being Elizabeth Warren’s rise to become one of the clear frontrunners.
— Donald Trump is attracting primary challengers, but his standing within the GOP remains strong.
— Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-GA) pending resignation expands the Senate playing field next year.
— Rep. Sean Duffy’s (R, WI-7) pending resignation sets up another House special election on Republican-leaning turf. The GOP remains favored to hold the district.
The Rise of Warren
Earlier this week, a new Monmouth University poll sent a shockwave through social media by reporting a three-way tie atop the Democratic presidential heap, with former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) all effectively tied at about 20% support apiece. Regular readers can probably predict our reaction, which was essentially this — don’t jump to conclusions based on a single poll. Sure enough, on Wednesday morning, two other national polls, from Quinnipiac University and USA Today/Suffolk University, conformed much more to previous polls, with Biden clearly leading the other candidates and garnering a little over 30% of the vote.
That’s essentially what the polls have shown all year. But amidst the stability, there has been at least one noteworthy change in the polling: Of all the candidates, Warren is the one whose standing has most clearly improved over the last several months.
Take a look at Figure 1, which is taken from the RealClearPolitics national polling average of the Democratic presidential primary. Note the poll standings on Jan. 1, 2019 demarcated on the left and then the standings from Wednesday morning noted on the right.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) remains mired in the single digits. Her position is a little bit better but her polling surge from the first debate has largely dissipated. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) has put himself on the map while former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16) has faded, but neither has polled as a truly top contender at any point so far.
If the RealClearPolitics average were a real poll with a margin of error — it isn’t, but bear with us for the overall point — we might characterize much of the change for many of the candidates from the start of the year to the end of August as being statistically insignificant, meaning that the changes are so slight that they may essentially be statistical noise as opposed to an actual change in support. That’s particularly true for Biden, Harris, and Sanders.
But Warren’s rise, from 4% to 16%, is the kind of change that any half-decent poll would suggest is statistically significant. That does not mean she is leading — Biden still clearly is, based on the bulk of the data — or even necessarily that she has surpassed Sanders for second place. But she is also, along with Sanders and Biden, one of the frontrunners, a group that at the moment is hard to expand beyond three.
That said, we also cannot necessarily make the assumption that the shape of the race is set in stone — months remain until Iowa votes in early February. Harris has shown the potential to climb higher, and may yet again. Some of the low-polling candidates — like Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) or Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) — may yet get their moment. Remember, for instance, the 2012 Republican race: While Mitt Romney ended up winning, at this point of the race he was trailing Rick Perry, and the two contenders who would become Romney’s chief rivals — Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — were combining for only about 7.5% of the vote. Of course, that’s a share of the vote that Klobuchar and Booker (now combining for only 3%) would envy, but it also does show at least the potential for low-performing candidates to break out later in what has become a long slog of a nomination process. The hope of a moment in the sun is sustaining many of the candidacies right now, although we’ve already started to see some candidates fall by the wayside, and expect to see more.
Wednesday’s round of polls apparently meant that only 10 candidates qualified for the next debate, set for Sept. 12 (the cutoff for qualification was Wednesday, meaning that it appears there will only be one debate in a couple of weeks instead of two). Warren has perhaps benefited from not sharing a stage yet with Biden and Harris, and with her continued rise in the polls, she may start to face more serious scrutiny from the other candidates.
The Trump primary
To show how strong Donald Trump remains with Republicans, consider this. A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed Trump’s approval rating among Americans at just 36%, and his disapproval at 62%. This, like the Monmouth poll cited above, feels like an outlier to us. Trump’s approval is usually in the low 40s and his disapproval is in the low 50s, and that’s been very consistent for the lion’s share of his presidency. One reason why the AP-NORC poll might show a lower approval for Trump than others is because it is a poll of all adults, a group that is often more Democratic-leaning than the smaller pool of registered voters that many other polls survey and that is more relevant when focused on elections.
Nonetheless, even in the AP/NORC poll, Trump’s approval among Republicans was 79%. In other words, the president’s position within his own party remains strong even in his worst polling. As we’ve previously observed, avoiding a credible primary challenge is a positive step toward reelection for any incumbent president.
Still, Trump is not without opponents. Former Gov. William Weld (R-MA), also the Libertarian vice presidential nominee in 2016, has been running against Trump for months, and former one-term Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh (R) threw his hat in the ring over the weekend. Walsh, who has made more than his fair share of noxious comments over the years, was in some ways an antecedent to Trump, a fact that the former congressman acknowledged as part of his announcement rollout over the weekend. It has been a little odd to see some prominent Never Trump Republicans rally to some extent around Walsh, but it does once again prove the salience of an old proverb: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Mark Sanford (R), a former South Carolina governor and congressman who lost his House primary last year partly because of his Trump criticism, is another possible Trump opponent.
It’s easy to dismiss this motley crew of Trump challengers out of hand and, to be clear, we don’t see any of them as a threat to the president’s renomination. At this point it’s hard to imagine Trump losing a single state, let alone the actual nomination (although perhaps he might have trouble in places that were notably cool to him in 2016, like Mormon-dominated Utah).
However, let’s also remember that Trump’s real opponent in the primary is expectations. We noted earlier this year that, based on history, an incumbent in Trump’s position in his own party should probably win about two-thirds or more of the vote in the first primary state, New Hampshire. If he consistently runs ahead of that share in New Hampshire and going forward, it’s a sign that he remains solidly in command of his party. If he dips under that number, it might be a sign of softness with Republicans as we move into the general election campaign.
It’s becoming clearer that Republicans will have options in the presidential primary season. How good those options are is in the eye of the beholder, but they’ll have them nonetheless.
The Senate map expands
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) announced Wednesday morning that he will be resigning at the end of the year for health reasons. That means Georgia will have two Senate elections next November, raising the stakes in a state that is more Republican than the nation but is becoming more competitive.
Our initial rating of the Georgia Senate special election is Leans Republican, which matches the rating of the state’s other Senate seat — Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) is running for reelection – and the state’s presidential race rating. Two interrelated trends contribute to the reasoning for these ratings. The first is that presidential and Senate voting are coming more and more into alignment, and the second is that when a state holds two Senate elections at a time, it’s very common for the same party to win both races. The last time a state holding “double-barreled” concurrent Senate elections rendered a split decision was South Carolina in 1966, when it reelected party-switching Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) while backing Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D) in the special. That includes the two concurrent Senate elections held last year: Democrats swept a pair of races in Minnesota, while Republicans carried a pair in Mississippi, albeit in a post-election runoff in one of the races in the latter. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) beat former Rep. Mike Espy (D) in the runoff after a jungle primary first-round Senate election in which all candidates ran together on the same ballot and the top two finishers advanced to a runoff because no one won a majority of the vote in the first round.
The Mississippi example is instructive because it appears this will also be the format for the Georgia special: According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) will appoint a temporary senator to fill the seat after Isakson resigns, and there will be an election to fill the remaining two years of Isakson’s unexpired term in November 2020. The election will feature an all-party primary and a post-election runoff in the (probable) event no one gets to 50% in the first round. Just like in Arizona, which also is holding a Senate special election next year, this seat will be back on the ballot for a regular election in 2022.
Questions abound. Will Kemp pick a placeholder, or will he pick someone who will run next fall? If he does appoint someone who will run again, will other Republicans defer to that person? There are a lot of ambitious Republican pols in Georgia, and recent major statewide primaries (2014 Senate and 2018 governor) have featured big fields with many prominent contenders. Meanwhile, will any Democrats switch over from the other Senate race? There are a number of contenders, none of whom have truly distinguished themselves. Will new candidates emerge? Stacey Abrams (D), who lost a close gubernatorial race to Kemp last year, passed on challenging Perdue and announced Wednesday that she would not run for the other Senate seat either.
It would behoove both parties to rally around a single candidate in the special in order to give that person a chance to win the election outright in November 2020. Whether that’s truly possible for either side is another matter. The turnout dynamics in a runoff might benefit the Republicans given the usually less-reliable Democratic voter base, and Democratic intensity has clearly fallen off in two such runoffs over the last dozen years in the state. That said, it’s impossible to know what the dynamics will be. It may even be the case that a Georgia Senate runoff would decide the Senate majority (it’s also possible that the race for Perdue’s seat could go to a runoff as well, depending on the dynamics in that race — so two Senate races in Georgia could still be undecided following next year’s presidential race).
The bottom line here is that one would rather be the Republicans at the statewide level in Georgia, but this development does give the Democrats an additional Senate target. There are now 35 Senate races slated for next year: Republicans are defending 23, while Democrats are defending 12.
Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change
Another House special on GOP turf
Rep. Sean Duffy (R, WI-7) announced earlier this week that he will be resigning from the House in late September because of family considerations: He and his wife are expecting a ninth child in October, and it has become clear, Duffy said, that the baby will have medical issues.
Duffy’s resignation will prompt a special election in his sprawling, northwest Wisconsin congressional district sometime next year (perhaps timed with Wisconsin’s April 7, 2020 presidential primary and state Supreme Court election).
The dynamics of the special election for WI-7, whenever it occurs, might feel familiar to readers. It’s just the latest to be held in a district that is clearly Republican-leaning, but not so overwhelmingly Republican that it’s impossible to imagine a Democrat winning it. Trump won WI-7 by 20 points in 2016. That’s about the same margin as the old version of PA-18, which now-Rep. Conor Lamb (D, PA-17) captured in his 2018 special election upset before winning a different district following court-ordered redistricting. WI-7’s presidential lean is also similar to the margins in the districts in several other nationally-watched special elections from last cycle that Republicans held while running significantly behind Trump’s 2016 margin: OH-12 (Trump +11), SC-5 (+19), AZ-8 and MT-AL (+21), and KS-4 (+27). Two special elections coming up on Sept. 10 in North Carolina also are similar: Trump carried the closely-watched and competitive NC-9 by 12 and the not-so-closely-watched NC-3 by 24. (Presidential results by congressional district come courtesy of Daily Kos Elections.)
This district is a version of the one that long-serving Rep. David Obey (D) held for more than four decades before retiring in advance of the 2010 election (Obey himself first won the district in a 1969 special election, capturing it for Democrats after Republican Melvin Laird was elevated from the House to lead the Defense Department). It is the kind of district — geographically large, dotted with small towns, overwhelmingly white, and below the national average in four-year college attainment — that has been trending away from Democrats, particularly with Trump leading the GOP. As recently as 2008, Barack Obama carried almost every county in that decade’s version of WI-7, and in 1996, Bill Clinton did carry every county. But Democratic presidential nominees barely carried it in 2000 and 2004, and it voted for Mitt Romney by three points in 2012 — after Republicans altered the district to protect then-freshman Duffy as part of decennial redistricting — before backing Trump by 20 points in 2016. The GOP trend continued there even in the bad GOP environment of 2018, as now-former Gov. Scott Walker (R) carried it by 16 points while losing narrowly statewide, and GOP Senate nominee Leah Vukmir carried it by four points while losing by about 11 points statewide to Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D). (These 2018 results for WI-7 are from Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux, who also maintains a useful history of House special elections dating back to the late 1950s.)
So this is definitely GOP-leaning territory at this particular point in time. As we wait to see which candidates emerge, we’re moving the race from Safe Republican, but only to Likely Republican for now.