The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new reminder that candidate quality matters

Doug Mastriano, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania, speaks ahead of former president Donald Trump at a rally in Wilkes-Barre on Sept. 3. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

What’s apparent at this point, just over a month before voting ends in the 2022 midterm elections, is that nearly any national outcome is possible. FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of the state of play figures there’s about a 3 in 10 chance that Republicans win the House and Senate, about a 3 in 10 chance that the Democrats win both, and about a 4 in 10 chance that the parties split the two (Democrats, Senate; Republicans, House).

For all of the elevation of the importance of these elections, the field appears to remain fairly even. Or, perhaps, it’s because of the elevation of importance that it does. There are two reasons that a tug-of-war rope remains over the center point: No one is pulling at all, or both sides are pulling very hard.

This big-picture perspective, though, blurs the fact that overall patterns are dependent on individual races. And a spate of new polls conducted for Fox News by its bipartisan polling team shows, in essence, the importance of picking viable candidates in the first place.

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The new polls evaluate the state of play in four states that are electing both governors and senators this year: Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The widest overall margin is in the Pennsylvania governor’s race, where Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) leads state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) by 11 points. The closest race is in Wisconsin, where Gov. Tony Evers (D) earns the same level of support as his challenger, businessman Tim Michels (R). Generally, the picture is consistent: These races are too close to be able to identify a clear leader.

If we pick out each race individually, though, some interesting patterns emerge. Below, we overlay the margin of support by party and the percentage of supporters of each candidate who say that they support the candidate enthusiastically.

Notice two things.

First, the level of support from members of a party (the big red and blue circles) varies depending on the race. The difference in Georgia is stark: The margin the Republican gubernatorial incumbent (Brian Kemp) enjoys among Republicans is wider than the margin for Senate candidate Herschel Walker. Among Democrats, the opposite is true: Gubernatorial challenger Stacey Abrams has a less robust margin among Democrats than does Sen. Raphael G. Warnock.

Then consider the enthusiasm difference. The red and blue circles are scaled to enthusiasm percentages, with bigger circles meaning more enthusiasm from supporters. Those are compared directly at right. While Abrams and Kemp evoke similar levels of partisan enthusiasm, Warnock gets much more enthusiasm from Democrats than Walker does from Republicans.

In fact, in three of the four Senate contests, Democrats have a wide enthusiasm advantage — on average, 28 points. And in each of those races, the Democrats are facing Republican competitors who’ve run less-than-exceptional campaigns.

In Arizona, Sen. Mark Kelly (D) faces venture capitalist Blake Masters (R), who has been saddled with both political clumsiness and self-inflicted controversies. In Georgia, Walker’s own staff members have been complaining about the candidate to reporters. In Pennsylvania, television personality Mehmet Oz (R) has been battered by questions about his New Jersey residence. The Fox News poll shows improvement for Oz, but the campaign has not been smooth sailing. In each of these three races, the Democratic candidate has an advantage both in vote margin and in enthusiasm.

It’s worth noting here that “enthusiasm” is a wobbly concept. That enthusiasm matters is clear; if you are very excited about voting for a candidate, you’re more likely to, say, prioritize heading to vote after work or in a rainstorm. Those things matter at the edges. The question is the extent to which expressed enthusiasm in polling makes a big difference. Research indicates that polled enthusiasm does correlate to election results, but of course, there’s also a broader question about the precision of polls in the Donald Trump era.

That enthusiasm seems to correspond to perceptions of candidate quality, though, is telling. In the fourth Senate race, pitting Sen. Ron Johnson (R) against Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), Johnson is faring better. That’s probably a combination of incumbency — clearly a factor in the Arizona and Georgia Senate races — and the fact that efforts to cast the Democrat as unacceptably liberal have been more effective than in other states. In Fox’s polling, 35 percent of respondents said they were extremely concerned that Barnes’s views were too extreme, about the same share as said that of Johnson. Barnes is the only Democratic candidate at an enthusiasm disadvantage.

At the gubernatorial level, the enthusiasm gaps are narrower — though in Pennsylvania, where Mastriano trails by a lot, Democrats are 19 points more enthusiastic than Republicans. Mastriano’s campaign has been conducted from safely within the right’s media bubble, but even among Republicans, his margin of support is among the lowest of any of the seven other candidates. Oz’s support from Republicans is more robust than Mastriano’s. Forty percent of respondents said they were extremely concerned that Mastriano’s views were too extreme.

There is one candidate who was seen as a dubious candidate choice but is faring well in the Fox polling: Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona. A former television news anchor, she’s adept at politicking, but her decision to center her campaign heavily on false claims about election fraud seemed like it might be a drag on her effort.

Fox asked another question that may help explain why it hasn’t been. Asked to pick between identifying themselves as supporters more of the Republican Party or Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement, Arizona was the only state where MAGA support was more common.

While the margin Lake enjoys among Republicans is relatively low compared with the other candidates, the difference in enthusiasm between her and Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, is negligible.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), perpetually thirsting to once again be majority leader, has downplayed confidence in his party’s ability to retake the Senate given the quality of candidates who emerged during the primaries. (Masters, Walker and Oz were all Trump endorsees.) There’s still a chance that Republicans will retake the Senate majority, particularly if polling is underestimating Republican support as it has in recent years. But the Fox polling certainly reinforces McConnell’s point.

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