The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New election poll shows Democratic voters are more engaged and Democratic House incumbents more popular

Rasleen Krupp, 17, leads a “March for Our Lives” rally for gun legislation and school safety on March 24 in Cincinnati. (John Minchillo/AP)

The story of the midterm election so far goes something like this. Chapter 1 was about the extraordinary backlash against President Trump, visible in the Democratic candidates’ striking performance in special elections. This had all the makings of a “blue wave.”

Chapter 2 was about whether, in fact, the blue wave would materialize. Economic growth continues. Trump’s approval rating increased. The Democratic advantage in the generic ballot decreased. One pro-Trump commentator even ventured the notion of a “red wave” in 2018.

The new GW Politics Poll suggests that many of those fundamentals remain the same. In this poll, Democrats had a seven-point advantage in the generic ballot for the U.S. House (45 percent to 38 percent), with 17 percent undecided or saying they would not vote. Trump’s approval rating was 44 percent. Both figures are close to the poll averages.

But in two respects, the poll suggests some Democratic advantages that are less visible on the surface. Democratic voters remain more politically engaged than Republican voters on several dimensions — including their willingness to do the spadework of an election campaign. And Democratic incumbents in the House are perceived more positively than Republican incumbents. Whether that will add up to a veritable “wave” remains to be seen.

What is the GW Politics Poll?

The GW Politics Poll is a joint venture of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, Department of Political Science, and Graduate School of Political Management. (It is the successor to the former GW Battleground Poll.)

In 2018, we are doing something unusual — especially for a midterm election year: interviewing the same respondents four times during and after the campaign. This will enable us to track in real time how the attitudes and intentions of voters evolve and whether any changes advantage Democratic or Republican congressional candidates.

The first poll surveyed 3,150 registered voters from May 14 to 30 (although the vast majority of respondents were interviewed between May 14 and 16).

Are the Democrats more mobilized?

Looked at one way, Democrats and Republicans appear similarly engaged at this point in the campaign. Large majorities of both Democrats (90 percent) and Republicans (87 percent) say they will vote for their party’s candidate in House races. And, as the graph below shows, large majorities report that they are “definitely likely to vote.” Among these likely voters, Democrats had the same seven-point advantage in the generic ballot.

But the graph shows that Democrats are more engaged in other respects. Although equal fractions of Democrats and Republicans reported being contacted by a political party (mostly by their own party), Democrats were more likely to report talking to people about how to vote or sharing a viewpoint on social media. They were more likely to have been involved in the campaign in other ways — donating, wearing a button or sticker, attending a meeting or rally, or working for a candidate.

It remains to be seen how engagement in these domains translates at the ballot box — especially with months to go before the election. But this poll suggests that the engagement visible at events such as the March for Women is still present among Democrats nationwide.

How voters feel about House incumbents

Respondents were also asked more extensive questions about their House representative than is typical for a public poll. For these questions, respondents were told the name of their representative before they answered.

Just about half of respondents (49 percent) approved of the job their representative was doing, while 34 percent disapproved and 17 percent did not have an opinion. Most Republicans (75 percent) and Democrats (78 percent) approved of their incumbent if he or she was in their party, but many fewer (22 percent and 16 percent) approved of their incumbent if he or she was in the opposite party. Respondents were more likely not to have an opinion of their House incumbent if that lawmaker was in the opposite party.

The GW Politics Poll tapped more specific evaluations of House incumbents. Respondents asked how much they believe that incumbents cared about: the country as a whole, their political party’s agenda, their campaign donors, people like you, your local community, their political career, their policy priorities and your political views.

The responses revealed some cynicism. The largest majorities thought that their representative cared “a great deal” or “some” about their political career (71 percent), their political party’s agenda (70 percent), their policy priorities (65 percent) and their campaign donors (62 percent). By comparison, fewer thought that their representative cared about the country as a whole (55 percent), their local community (50 percent), people like them (43 percent) or their own political views (41 percent).

On average, approval of Democratic incumbents was slightly higher (54 percent) than approval of Republican incumbents (45 percent). The graph below shows that respondents were equally likely to think that Democratic and Republican incumbents cared about their party’s agenda, campaign donors, policy priorities and their political career.

But Democratic incumbents were perceived as somewhat more “public spirited”: A slightly larger fraction (57 percent) said Democratic incumbents cared about the country as a whole than said this of Republicans (53 percent). There were larger gaps in perceptions of whether Democratic and Republican incumbents cared about “people like you” (46 percent vs. 40 percent), your local community (56 percent vs. 47 percent), and your political views (44 percent vs. 38 percent).

However, because this sample was not designed to be representative of congressional districts, it is worth taking that difference with a grain of salt. But those findings jibe with other evidence that Democratic candidates tend to have a chronic advantage in how much they are perceived to care about “people like you.”

Of course, it is not clear whether any cynicism about House incumbents will be actionable at the ballot box. Recent American history is littered with predictions of anti-incumbent waves that never materialize. Usually, waves are more about voting out the incumbents of only one party. Perhaps, then, Democratic incumbents will benefit from having more positive perceptions on some dimensions.

Stay tuned

The GW Politics poll will interview these voters twice more before the election, and then after the election. We will track the public’s views on these dimensions to see whether big changes are coming in terms of who has power in Congress.