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Democrats in prime position to take House, but battleground district poll shows wild cards remain

With Democrats eyeing the 2018 elections as a chance for a blue wave, here's how they're fighting to win the 24 seats they need to take control of the House. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Democrats maintain a strong position to retake the U.S. House, but the party’s base of less-frequent voters and concerns about illegal immigration stand out as wild cards in the final days before Tuesday’s midterm elections, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll of likely voters in battleground congressional districts.

Overwhelming majorities of both Democrats and Republicans are confident that their party will prevail, with both nearly as confident as Democrats were — erroneously, as it turned out — ahead of President Trump’s surprise victory two years ago. Voters also perceive high stakes in the event of a loss: At least two-thirds of Democrats and Republicans alike say a losing outcome for their party would be “very bad” for the country.

Across 69 congressional districts identified by the Cook Political Report and The Post as competitive in late August, the Post-Schar School poll finds 50 percent of likely voters support the Democratic candidate, while 46 percent support the Republican.

The Democrats’ four-point edge represents a superficial advantage with Republicans, given the poll’s 3.5-point margin of error. Still, the finding marks a sharp turn from 2016, when voters in these districts backed Republicans by a margin of 15 percentage points. With 63 of the battleground districts held by Republicans, that kind of shift in sentiment would be sufficient for Democrats to take control of the House. The party needs a net gain of 23 seats to win the majority.

While Republicans face significant challenges in holding the House, the dynamics of individual districts and uncertainties about turnout make for a wide range in the potential number of seats Democrats will gain Tuesday.

Read full poll results | How the battleground survey was conducted

The survey of 1,350 likely voters in battleground districts was conducted Oct. 25-28 and is the third wave of interviews in these district this fall by The Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Few battleground voters shifted their support over that period, and Democrats’ four-point edge is identical to when these voters were first surveyed in September and early October.

Turnout remains a critical factor in next Tuesday’s balloting, and given past patterns, Democratic turnout is at greater risk of falling short of what the candidates in competitive races might need to win. The party’s current level of support in the poll of battleground districts is fueled by a 21-point advantage among voters under age 40, a 21-point advantage among independents who lean toward neither party and a 40-point advantage among nonwhite voters.

These groups have turned out at low rates in recent midterm elections. In 2014, 36 percent of eligible African Americans voted, along with 21 percent of Hispanics and 16 percent of people under age 30, according to the United States Elections Project. At the same time, 41 percent of whites cast ballots. And while some voters in these groups express heightened enthusiasm this year, it is unclear how much the electorate’s makeup will shift from previous years. Overall, voters who did not turn out in the 2014 midterms favor Democrats by 55 percent to 42 percent, while those who did vote split 49 percent to 48 percent in Republicans’ favor.

Women continue to be key to Democratic hopes on Tuesday. White women with college degrees, a high-turnout group, currently favor Democratic House candidates by a 26-point margin, 62 percent to 36 percent. Along with nonwhite women, they contribute to a 12-point Democratic advantage among women overall, 54 percent to 42 percent. Republicans fare better among white women without college degrees, leading 55 percent to 42 percent. And Republicans have a slight three-point edge among men, 50 percent to 47 percent.

Republicans draw roughly even support with other higher-turnout groups, among them seniors, who currently split 48 percent for Republicans versus 49 percent for Democrats. White voters — who make up a larger portion of the electorate in battleground districts this year — narrowly prefer Republican candidates, 51 percent to 47 percent.

The president’s increased focus on immigration in the final days of the campaign may find some resonance with voters who will decide control of the House. The Post-Schar School poll finds that 54 percent of voters in battleground district say the “U.S. should do more” than it is currently doing to try to stop illegal immigration across the border with Mexico, while 21 percent support taking less action and 25 percent say the United States is already taking appropriate steps.

Attitudes, however, are sharply partisan, with 84 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying the country should do more to prevent illegal immigration, compared with 23 percent of Democratic-leaning voters. Roughly half of independents say more should be done to deter illegal immigration.

A question about federal efforts to combat climate change found slightly more support for increased action, a position at odds with the Trump administration. A 59 percent majority of likely battleground voters say the United States should do more to try to deal with global warming, while 11 percent say it should do less and 30 percent said the country is doing the right amount. Almost half, 49 percent, say the severity of recent hurricanes are a result of global warming, while 51 percent say they are just the kind of severe weather events that happen from time to time.

As with global warming, views of which party will take the House split along partisan lines among voters in the battleground districts — although a number of independent political handicappers currently rate the Democrats as favorites. Asked whether the Democratic Party will take control of the House, 83 percent of Democratic-leaning voters say yes, while 81 percent of Republican-leaning voters think their party will retain control. Pure independents, by 58 percent to 42 percent, predict that Democrats will take control.

The country’s increasing polarization and the hostile tone of the campaigns set the groundwork for the starkly negative views both parties have of a win by the other side. Roughly 9 in 10 Republican-leaning voters say it would be “bad for the country” if Democrats emerge with a majority in the House, including 67 percent who say it would be “very bad.” Similarly, more than 9 in 10 Democratic-leaning voters say it would be bad if Republicans maintain control, including 70 percent who see this as “very bad.”

Democratic-leaning voters are slightly more positive about winning, however. A 71 percent majority say it would be “very good” for the country if Democrats retake the House, compared with a smaller 56 percent majority of Republican-leaning voters who say the same about maintaining GOP control of the body.

On another front, the poll finds battleground voters have been paying significant attention to news about the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi while visiting the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul. A 76 percent majority of likely battleground voters heard or read at least a good amount about the prominent Saudi journalist’s murder.

The vast majority of battleground district voters who heard at least some news about the issue — 84 percent — say that Saudi leaders are trying to cover up what happened to Khashoggi. Just 2 percent say top Saudi leaders have honestly disclosed the facts of the case.

When asked whether the United States should change its relationship with Saudi Arabia if its leaders ordered Khashoggi’s murder, a 55 percent majority of voters in battleground districts say the United States should cut back ties with the country. Just under 2 in 10 voters, 19 percent, say the United States should maintain close ties, while more than a quarter say they’re unsure.

There are large partisan differences on this question. A 74 percent majority of Democratic-leaning battleground voters say the United States should cut back ties if Saudi leaders ordered Khashoggi’s killing, compared with 38 percent of Republican-leaning voters saying the same. Some 29 percent of Republicans, following the lead of Trump, say the United States should maintain close ties with the country, while a sizable 33 percent say they are unsure.

Whatever their suspicions of Saudi leaders, voters in battleground districts are split over how Trump is handling the issue, with 52 percent disapproving and 48 percent approving. More voters disapprove strongly (37 percent) than approve strongly (23 percent) of Trump’s performance on this issue.

Emily Guskin and Chris Alcantara contributed to this report.