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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Rakich: Senate Democrats are polling well – That could help Biden.

In “Senate Democrats are polling well. That could help Biden,” Nathaniel Rakich writes at 538:

As Democrats wring their hands over their poor polling numbers in the presidential race, there is one spot of good news for them: U.S. Senate races. Democratic candidates have led in most recent polls of key Senate races like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin* even as President Joe Biden trails former President Donald Trump in the very same polls.

I went back and looked at every state-level poll that has asked about both the presidential race and a U.S. Senate race over the past six weeks. The table below shows a simple average of these polls by state; as you can see, Senate Democrats are outrunning Biden’s margin by an average of 5 percentage points:

Table with 5 columns and 11 rows.
Arizona 5 R+4 D+6 +10
Pennsylvania 5 R+3 D+4 +7
Wisconsin 4 R+2 D+7 +10
Florida 3 R+10 R+13 −3
Nevada 3 R+8 D+6 +15
Maryland 2 D+23 D+10 −13
Michigan 1 R+1 D+2 +3
Minnesota 1 D+2 D+14 +12
Texas 1 R+9 R+13 −4
Virginia 1 D+1 D+12 +11
Average R+1 D+4 +5
It isn’t hard to figure out why this is the case. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Biden is unpopular; meanwhile, most Democratic candidates for Senate are popular incumbents, like Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, and/or have a track record of outperforming the top of the ticket, like Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Lo and behold, the only three states where Republican Senate candidates are polling better than Trump are the two states where they are incumbents (Florida and Texas) and Maryland, where the GOP’s candidate is popular former Gov. Larry Hogan, who had an astounding 81 percent approval rating among Democrats at the time he left office.

So it’s not exactly a mystery why there’s a presidential-downballot gap. The more interesting question is what, if anything, that gap means for November. There are basically three theories to answer that:

1. Biden’s support right now is artificially low; there are plenty of traditionally Democratic voters who are telling pollsters they support Senate Democrats but, for whatever reason, aren’t ready to get behind Biden yet. So Biden’s support will rise as we get closer to the election and those voters get on board, leaving both Biden and Senate Democrats in good shape.

2. Senate Republicans’ support right now is artificially low. Since most of them aren’t incumbents, they aren’t as well known as their opponents, but their support will rise as Trump voters learn that they are on the “right team” in these Senate races. Therefore, both Trump and Senate Republicans will do well in November.

3. Senate Democrats are just more popular than Biden, and this gap will persist through the election: Many states will vote for both Trump and a Democratic Senate candidate.

Right off the bat, I’m skeptical of No. 3. If the current polls end up being exactly correct, Democrats would win at least five Senate races in states Trump carries. That wouldn’t have been unusual 20 years ago — in 2004, seven states voted for different parties for president and for Senate. But today, split-ticket voting is quite rare. In 2016, every state voted for the same party for Senate that it did for president, and in 2020, every state but one (Maine) did.

The median difference between the presidential and Senate margins in a state has also shrunk drastically over that time — from 20 points in 2004 to just 3 points in 2020.

Read the rest of Rakich’s article here.

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