CNN is justifiably hyped about its new poll offering a surprising assessment of this November’s congressional races.
“Democrats’ 2018 advantage is nearly gone,” its article about the poll trumpets, a function of the mostly erased gap between the Democrats and the Republicans on the generic-ballot question (that is, asking respondents whom they plan to vote for, the Democratic House candidate or the Republican). In December, CNN and its polling partner SRSS gave the Democrats an 18-point advantage on that question. Now the advantage is only three points, easily within the margin of error.
At the outset, we will note that this is not good news for the Democrats. Would the Democrats rather have an 18-point advantage on the generic ballot? Yes, they would. But we must also note that this new poll is not as bad as it may at first seem.
The generic-ballot gap has generally moved up and down in sync with the net approval rating for President Trump. As Trump has gotten less popular, the Democrats have had a wider advantage on the generic ballot. As he has gotten more popular, the Republicans have gained ground. You can see that synchronized movement on the chart below, which shows average poll results for each question.
Trump’s been improving since December, and so have the Republicans.
Notice, too, that the average is not 3 percent. It’s at 7 percent, even including the CNN-SRSS poll. As more polls come out, especially if they’re closer to the CNN poll value, the average can change. For now, though, the average is about where it has been for a month.
The more interesting factor in the CNN poll is revealed when you consider respondent enthusiasm.
About 45 percent of respondents say they’re extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in November; slightly over half say they’re less enthusiastic. About the same percentage of Democrats and Republicans report being highly enthusiastic about voting, around 50 percent. Only about 4 in 10 independents agree.
But there’s a big difference in the views of those who are and aren’t enthusiastic about voting. More enthusiastic respondents are also much more critical of Trump, much more likely to back the Democrats on the generic ballot and much more likely to prefer a congressional candidate who actively opposes Trump. Sure, the Democrats have only a three-point advantage on the generic ballot, but among those most enthusiastic about voting, the Democrats have a 12-point edge.
Self-reported enthusiasm isn’t a certain predictor of actually voting. Again, though, this isn’t bad news for the Democrats. One would much rather have the enthusiasm advantage than not have it.
There is another factor worth mentioning here. Over the course of his presidency, views about Trump have disproportionately been strong. Most Americans have a strong opinion about how Trump is doing as president, either positively or negatively. Well, mostly negatively, as Post-ABC News polling has shown. (Our most recent poll was released last month.)
Compare views about Trump to views about other presidents since 2000. The percentage of Americans with a strongly negative view of Trump is about equal to what George W. Bush saw at the end of his second term. But the percentage with a strongly positive view of Trump is only slightly lower on average than what Barack Obama saw during his two terms.
Looking at it another way: More than 7 in 10 Americans have had a strongly positive or negative view of Trump for essentially the whole time he has been president. Obama hardly ever inspired that level of emotion. Bush did — mostly right after 9/11.
Again: Most of those strong views of Trump are negative.
What this suggests is that there aren’t a lot of people to be persuaded by Trump one way or the other. Lots of people feel strongly about him and may come out to vote for or against him, but as the CNN poll suggests, Trump and the Republicans are at a disadvantage should that happen. The question is how many of those with less-strong feelings might come out.
CNN’s poll has more bad news for Republicans in that regard. Of those who approve of the job Trump is doing, only 43 percent say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting (22 percent of the total saying they are extremely enthusiastic). Half of those who disapprove of Trump say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting, more than a quarter of that group being extremely enthusiastic.
Again: The generic ballot isn’t good news for the Democrats, given where they have been in the past. But there are other indicators in the poll that are less grim — and it’s still an environment in which a lot of people are awfully irritated at the head of the Republican Party.