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Historical trends and months of polling previously predicted that Democrats will face trouble in the midterms. But recent data shows that a red wave may not be the tsunami that Republicans were hoping for. Democratic strategist Joel Benenson and Republican pollster Neil Newhouse join Amna Nawaz to discuss what they’re watching ahead of Election Day.
Well, we are now only 54 days ahead of the midterm elections, and campaigns nationwide are gearing up for tough battles. Historical trends and months of polling previously predicted that Democrats will face trouble this fall, but recent data show that a red wave may not be the tsunami that Republicans were hoping for.
Joining me now to discuss what they're watching ahead of those midterms are two pollsters tracking it all.
Joel Benenson is a Democratic strategist who worked on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaigns, and Neil Newhouse was the lead pollster for Mitt Romney and John McCain's presidential bids.
Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.
Neil, let's talk about that red wave. We have been hearing about it for months. Based on what you see now, what does that wave look like to you?
Neil Newhouse, Republican Pollster:
The trajectory of this election has changed, and it's changed because of the Dobbs decision.
When we look back on this election next year or years from now, this is going to be known as the Dobbs election. It has given Democrats a foothold to get back into it.
But when you step away from the numbers, and you look at where the data is right now, Biden's approval rating is 43 and disapproval above 50. The mood of the country is negative. Americans already believe we're in a recession. If you take a snapshot of those numbers, it's easy to see Republican optimism and the fact that I think we're going to win the House and do well across the country.
But if you look at the directionality of the numbers, the kind of trending numbers, there's no question that Biden's approval has been — has been improving, concerns about the economy have been easing a bit. And the generic ballot is back to dead even. So this is not the election we thought it was going to be six months ago.
This is a different political environment.
Joel, what about you?
The conventional wisdom is, the party in power struggles in midterms? Is that different this year? Does that hold?
Joel Benenson, Democratic Strategist:
Well, I will take the last point, you will meet about the generic ballot being dead-even. If you look back historically, that's not a good number for Democrats.
Republicans have done much better at the state levels. They have been able to gerrymander districts to their benefit, just as Democrats do to ours when we're in power. But it gives Republicans an upper hand. And so I think that the House is going to be very, very difficult to hold at this point.
And I think the Senate, we have no margin for error as Democrats. We are 50/50, with the vice president comprising the deciding vote there. And there are tough races all over the country. Now, I think both of them, both parties right now have about 40 safe seats up. So there are going to be a handful of competitive districts that are going to determine the outcomes there.
In some of them, Republicans look good. Some are very close. States like Georgia, the incumbent, Reverend Warnock, is in a tight battle with Herschel Walker. I think he will pull it out. I think Colorado, Senator Bennet will hold his seat. I think Maggie Hassan will hold her seat in New Hampshire. Then you got tossups in North Carolina. I think we're in for a wild night on election night.
And there could be some surprises either way here. But I think Neil is right in his assessment. And I — but I also think Democrats holding here is going to be a tough thing in both houses.
Well, there are two very clear messages that have emerged in recent months.
Democrats are largely focused and increasingly vocally focused on the loss of abortion rights, as you mentioned, Neil, post the Roe decision. Republicans focus largely on the economy and inflation.
In Nevada, here is how that conversation is playing out in the Senate race between the Democratic senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt. Take a look at these clips.
Roe v. Wade was always a joke.
Laxalt self-supported overturning Nevada's abortion protections. He let states outlaw it, even for victims of rape and incest.
Inflation through the roof and higher prices on everything are costing Nevada families plenty, and so is Catherine Cortez Masto.
So, Neil, you have seen Democrats hammering home this message about the loss of abortion rights. And then, yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham came out and introduced a nation wide 15-week abortion ban.
What did you think when you saw that happen?
I think his heart may have been in the right place in terms of what he was trying to do strategically. I think the way it was executed and the fact that it's stepping on the message that Republicans want to get out about inflation, cost of living, the economy, I think, was absolutely the wrong strategic move to make.
It was — anything that Republicans are doing right now to take the focus off of inflation, the economy, the general perceived incompetence of the Biden administration, anything we're doing talking about other issues is — it doesn't help us in the fall.
Joel, what about you? How are those messages landing?
Look, I think — well, I think it's landing like a lead balloon. I think we have already seen reports on voter registration. Women and young people are outperforming what was expected in voter registration for a midterm election.
I think that's definitely — let's make no mistake about it. And I think Neil and I agree on this. Dobbs is going to be on the ballot here, almost more so than Joe Biden, in my mind, at this point. I cited Neil's home state of Kansas as an example where the voters went to the ballot there and upheld a woman's right to choose in a Republican red state, and presidential level turnout, and 60 percent of the voters were Republican that day.
I think this is going to cut big into Republican base voters, women in particular, suburban voters. And I think that it gives — it's giving Democrats more of a chance than I would have given them before the Dobbs decision.
Yes, go ahead, Neil, please.
I think — I go back to, it's giving them a foothold, but it's not necessarily going to determine the election. It's going to be difficult for Democrats to make the case to Americans that it's just like Kansas, abortion is on the ballot.
I think — I think, in a lot of these red districts especially, districts that Trump won that Democrats held, that's a very difficult argument. So it is definitely an issue in play. It is the number two vote determinant in the work that both Joel and I have done.
But, right now, you look at an economy now that is — that is teetering a little bit. Voters are still concerned about inflation. You have the threat of the rail strike coming up, which could increase gas prices, increase prices at the grocery store, we have got, Amna, you mentioned before, 55 days left. We have got a lot of land to cover in that period of time.
Joel, what about you? Neil just mentioned some of the things that could come up in these few weeks, eight — fewer than eight weeks now. That feels like many political lifetimes.
But what are the unknowns? What could change the landscape as we see it today?
Well, I don't think there are unknowns that can change the landscape today. This is — I mean, you can never tell what's going to happen in the last few weeks of an election, and particularly because these are not national elections.
Each of these — the dynamic in Florida with Rubio against Val Demings, et cetera, that — these races are going to be different. And the texture is going to be different, except for one thing. We have seen what's happened in terms of voter registration in reaction to the Dobbs decision. We know that this is personal for people. It reflects their personal values, not just the political sense of whether, is my gas price going up or down?
It's something that lives every day in the American mind-set about whether or not you believe that a woman has a right to make that choice herself. Well, you don't. And you have got a party now that has put a marker down. And Lindsey Graham today saying he wants to pass a law saying abortions are outlawed after 15 weeks, I think Neil agrees that was not a great political move, but I think it reflects where that party is.
And I think it reflects something that is not going to fade away on Election Day. People are going to walk in and they are going to be thinking about this, I believe, more than they're going to be thinking about the prices they have been paying at the pump for gasoline for the last two years.
They're going to be thinking about, which one of these people will really protect my values when push comes to shove? And I think this decision has put Republicans in a very bad place on that question.
Fifty-four days to go. We will be watching it very closely, as I'm sure both of you will.
Joel Benenson and Neil Newhouse, thank you to both of you.
Thank you, Amna.
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Amna Nawaz serves as PBS NewsHour's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
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