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Less than 90 days out from the midterms, things are looking good — but not great — for Democrats

Democrats’ generic ballot lead has dropped in recent days, but they still have an advantage with voter enthusiasm.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) And Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Discuss Trump’s Meeting With Putin In Helsinki Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Less than 90 days out from Election Day on November 6, how good are things for the Democrats, really?

If you’re looking at Democrats’ expanding number of battleground House districts, the future seems bright. With each passing primary day, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report adds more and more GOP House seats into its “toss-up” category, meaning these Republican-controlled districts are very much in play for Democrats.

As of Tuesday night’s primaries in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Vermont, Cook has added a total of 37 GOP-controlled House seats into the categories of toss-up, Lean Democrat, or Likely Democrat. As Cook’s US House editor Dave Wasserman pointed out, that’s nearly double what he counted back in January — when the number was 20. (Remember, Democrats need 23 seats to flip the House.)

“Going from 20 to 37 is a very significant development,” Wasserman told Vox on Wednesday. He added the number of races either Leaning or Likely Democrat has increased from three to 10 in that same period of time.

“The quality of those opportunities is good for Democrats as well,” he added.

Now, the less rosy news for Democrats: Their once-sizable lead on the congressional generic ballot, which asks people which party they’d vote for but doesn’t identify specific candidates, has shrunk in recent days. They’re currently up by about 4.8 points, according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, a fall from a nearly 12-point lead last month.

Here’s the RealClearPolitics generic ballot average from January to now.
RealClearPolitics

Kyle Kondik, a veteran pollster and the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, has another way of looking at this: Democrats have a fairly consistent generic ballot lead of 6 to 8 points throughout the 2018 cycle. Other polling websites like FiveThirtyEight show Democrats’ lead on the generic ballot averages about 8 points.

That’s good, but it’s not great, according to Kondik. It means that while Democrats will likely pick up seats, it will only be enough for a small majority in the House.

“It’s not the kind of number that suggests mega-wave,” Kondik told Vox on Wednesday. “I don’t think a House flip is a slam-dunk, but if you take everything in total, the Democrats are about 50-50 in the House.”

Wasserman agrees with this assessment, but added the generic ballot doesn’t really capture the sheer force of Democratic enthusiasm in 2018. That enthusiasm has been apparent in special elections this cycle, and reflected in a record number of women candidates who are outperforming their male counterparts.

“The generic ballot falls short of capturing Democrats’ intensity advantage,” Wasserman said. “The intensity is greatest with suburban professional women.”

A look at the battlefield

Some of the latest GOP casualties in the latest ratings changes are Reps. Mimi Walters (CA) and Tom MacArthur (NJ), who were just moved into the toss-up range after new polls showed their respective Democratic challengers within spitting distance.

Republicans have been taking slivers of good news where they can get them lately; for instance, it looks like they will hold on to the seat in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District after a highly contested special election (the results still haven’t been officially called).

President Donald Trump, for one, interpreted Republican Troy Balderson’s likely win as the sign of a “red wave.”

Even so, Democrat Danny O’Connor’s very close second in a very red district should be troubling for the GOP. Cook Political Report’s publisher and editor Charlie Cook put it more bluntly in a Tuesday column:

“If I were a Republican elected official or strategist, the red wave that I would be worried about would be made up of GOP blood in the streets on Nov. 7, the day after the election. The fact is that Republican strategists need to be thinking about triage at this point, sorting out which incumbents are likely to be able to survive without much outside help, which are lost causes, and which can still be saved with sufficient help.”

In the current political climate — one driven by Trump’s historically low approval ratings and energized Democratic candidates and voters (especially women) — Cook estimates that House Republicans will lose between 12 and 20 seats in 2018. He characterizes that as their best-case scenario.

“The question is whether they can keep it under 23 losses and retain their majority, or if not, keep within striking distance of retaking the House in 2020 or 2022,” Cook writes. “Losses of 40 to 60 seats are not out of the question, which makes the decisions made over the next 90 days utterly critical.”

Can Democrats win back the House? And if so, by how many seats?

Voters are excited by Democrats far exceeding expectations in special elections like Doug Jones’s win in the Alabama Senate race, Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, and even O’Connor’s close finish in Ohio’s 12th, but the generic ballot tamps down some of those expectations.

“Democrats would feel better if they were consistently plus-10 in the generic,” said Kondik. “That 6 to 8 range is usually where it’s been.”

It’s tough to tell exactly how many seats Democrats could pick up if they win in 2018, but a 6- to 8-point lead roughly translates to about 25 to 30 seats, according to pollsters’ estimates. That’s enough for Democrats to have a small majority in the House, but not enough to really set the policy agenda in the chamber without significant input from Republicans.

Democrats also face some structural roadblocks to a huge blue wave, as Vox’s Dylan Scott pointed out recently:

Democrats are still facing a heavily gerrymandered House map and the frank reality that their (younger) supporters have historically been less reliable voters in midterm elections than the GOP’s (older) base. Recent polling underscored the real risk that millennial voters won’t turn out as hoped.

Plus, Democratic leadership has been around for a long time and is fairly unpopular — so much so that opposing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has become a campaign issue, especially in moderate districts.

All signs are pointing to the likelihood that Democrats will flip the House. The overarching question we don’t know the answer to is by how many seats.