Quinnipiac University’s pollsters on Thursday added to the ominous data for Democrats. Asking a slightly different question, it found that Americans prefer a Republican-controlled House by an eight-point margin, 46 to 38, and a GOP Senate by a six-point margin, 46 to 40. The poll actually showed President Biden personally in a worse spot than in the Post-ABC poll. But both indicate an electorate that is primed to return Republicans to control in Congress, particularly given that the GOP needs very small gains — just five seats in the House and one in the Senate — to return to power.
We’re still getting the full picture of the all-important generic ballot polling, which is thus far infrequent. Other polls aren’t quite so favorable to the GOP, and there’s still nearly a year to go before the midterms. But what we can say with certainty is that things look quite bad for Democrats.
When Republicans took back the Senate in 2014 by flipping nine seats, for instance, they led on the generic ballot by just two points in the RealClearPolitics average.
When they took back the House in 2010 by flipping 63 seats, their generic-ballot lead was nine points — which is about where it is right now if you look at the Post-ABC and Quinnipiac polls.
To be clear, other polls haven’t been quite so favorable to Republicans. An Economist-YouGov poll released this week actually showed Democrats ahead by four points on the measure. But that’s the exception to the high-quality polls conducted since the 2021 election. Even before the election, most polls showed Republicans with an advantage on this question.
The reality of the generic ballot is that Democrats generally need to be ahead by a few points to have a status-quo election. This owes to both the House and Senate maps being tilted against them. But we’re far from such a status-quo finding at this point.
Here’s a look at how the final generic ballot averages (and, before 2002, Gallup polls) compared with the ultimate results in the House and the Senate:
Since 1994, in every election in which Republicans have led on the generic ballot, they have gained seats in both the House and the Senate — in each case, in numbers that would be enough to flip each chamber in 2022.
The inverse is not true for Democrats. Every election that was about even or with a slight Democratic edge has been more or less status quo — i.e., only single digits’ worth of House seats changing hands and usually fewer than two Senate seats.
Sometimes, Democrats have led on the generic ballot but still lost seats — especially recently.
In 1996, they led on the generic ballot by three points but lost two Senate seats. In 2018, they led on the generic ballot by seven points but lost two Senate seats (owing in large part to a tough map in which they were defending lots of red states). In 2020, they again led by seven points on the generic ballot but still lost 14 House seats.
Again, there is a large caveat there. While Democrats lost a significant number of House seats in 2020, they actually gained in the Senate and flipped the chamber. We’re in a more parliamentary era, in which it’s in some ways better to focus not on how many seats change hands but on the overall split of the chamber.
But the shifts detailed above clearly suggest that Democrats need not just to chip away at the GOP’s generic-ballot advantage but probably to erase it altogether — especially given how only tiny shifts are needed to flip each chamber and how much of an inherent advantage Republicans have on the maps.
And that’s a far cry from where the Democrats are.