The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The polls tell us something but not everything

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas, on Oct. 24 in Austin. (Amanda Voisard/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

The Post/ABC News poll shows Democrats with a 50 percent to 43 percent lead in the generic congressional poll among registered voters and a similar 51 to 44 percent lead among likely voters. Those figures are nearly identical to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (50/43 among likely voters). Combined with polling in specific competitive House races, Democrats seem headed for a pickup in the neighborhood of 35 seats.

A huge caveat should come with these numbers — and with the near-certainty with which prognosticators are predicting Republicans will hold the Senate. It’s not clear why they are so confident of the results, given that only one incumbent Democrat, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, is in serious trouble and a slew of races are within the margin of error.

As the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy points out, there is a “big possibility” Democrats flip Texas and/or Tennessee. In Texas, “There has been real momentum around the [Beto] O’Rourke campaign, especially over the last couple weeks,” MSNBC’s Garrett Haake reports. “He’s been drawing these big, diverse crowds all over the state. Places where Democrats don’t normally go. He’s built a get out the vote operation from scratch. I’ve heard a lot of people compare this campaign to the Obama campaign in 2008. But it actually reminds me more of the Trump campaign in 2016 in that his supporters are poll truthers. They say the numbers do not capture the enthusiasm here on the ground. And his campaign is buoyed by these get out the early vote numbers, which have been extraordinary in Texas.”

Adding to the uncertainty, early voting turnout has been off the charts, and there has been a sizable uptick among younger voters. The “likely” voter screens may be of little use — or may even be misleading. A lot of “unlikely” voters may have already voted or will vote Tuesday.

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A look at the demographic and gender breakdown of the polls should deeply worry Republicans. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that whites with college degrees favor Democrats by 19 points (56-37), white women with college degrees favor Democrats by 28 points (61-33), and women overall favor Democrats by 18 points (55-37). The Post/ABC poll likewise shows whites with college degrees favor Democrats by 14 points (54-40), while white women with college degrees favor Democrats by 16 points (54-38).

If politicians focused on issues important to black women, everyone would benefit, including President Trump's base, says Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

A final factor heightens the uncertainty. In Florida (where a Senate and multiple House races are up for grabs) and Georgia (where two Republican-held seats are in play) gubernatorial races, each featuring dynamic African American Democrats, are driving turnout and possibly changing the composition of the electorate. Stacey Abrams, the Democrat running for governor in Georgia, seeks to be the first female African American governor in U.S. history. She had this exchange on “Meet the Press“:

STACEY ABRAMS: We have seen unprecedented turnout in this race from people who normally do not engage and do not vote. Some of that has been driven by the conversations of voter suppression. Because one of the best ways to encourage people to use something is to tell them that someone’s trying to take it away. Luckily, we’ve had two court decisions against Brian Kemp, one that requires that absentee ballots be counted even if the signatures aren’t exactly the same and a second one that forces him to stop using the exact match system to disqualify voters who are qualified . . .
CHUCK TODD: The president’s going to be in Macon, Georgia today. He said you just simply weren’t qualified to be governor. He didn’t say why. How did you take that assessment?
STACEY ABRAMS: I find his assessments to be vapid and shallow. I am the most qualified candidate. I am a business owner. I’m a tax attorney who has trained at Yale Law School. I am a civic leader who helped to register more than 200,000 Georgians. I am a very accomplished political leader who worked across the aisle to improve access to education, to transportation. And I blocked the single-largest tax increase in Georgia history. There is no one more qualified standing for this office in Georgia. And I look forward to having the voters of Georgia say the same . . .
CHUCK TODD: You know, one of the things it seems to me, this has been a very bitter campaign. You’ve called your opponent a liar. He’s used some harsh language. If you win, you’re going to have a very large Republican majority in the Georgia legislature. Yes, maybe Democrats make a few gains there. But you’re going to be dealing with a Republican legislature. You have to work across the aisle if you’re going to accomplish anything. How do you repair this divide? It’s, let’s be honest. You know it’s, it feels worse than ever. How are you going to try to do this?
STACEY ABRAMS: Number one, I’ve run this campaign going to every single part of the state. I have not ignored a single community or county because I believe that my job is to speak to every single voter. Number two, if you look at the issues I talk about, education, high-class education for everyone, access to health care in every community, and making sure that we have good-paying jobs, this cuts across partisanship. But most importantly, I can stand on my record. I was the leader of Democrats in a majority-Republican legislature. And I was able to work across the aisle and get good done. We can disagree on principles, but we have a common responsibility to Georgians. And I’ve always said, “People don’t care about your party. They care about their lives.” And as the next governor, my goal is going to be to bring everyone together to solve the problems we can solve together. Certainly leading with my values: faith, and family, and service. But recognizing that everyone comes to the table as a Georgian and we have to work together.

She has been able, as has Andrew Gillum in Florida, to crank up enthusiasm among nonwhite voters without alienating moderates in the suburbs. They, and perhaps the Democrats more generally, have figured out that they can grow and electrify the base at the same time they can take in independents and Republicans fleeing from Trump’s noxious brand of nativism. If it works, Democrats will win big on Tuesday and may trigger a political realignment of a magnitude not seen since the South went Republican in reaction to the civil rights movement. In other words, we are a country in flux.

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