Record turnout upends midterm predictions

On Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw, Savannah Guthrie, Kasie Hunt, Cornell Belcher and Hugh Hewitt explore why polling can't keep up with record turnout
Image: Midterm elections
Voters wait in a line to cast their ballots on the last day of early voting at the Green Hills Library in Nashville, Tennessee on Nov. 1, 2018.Rick Musacchio / EPA

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By Ben Kamisar

With Election Day just two days away, both the candidates and major party committees are gearing up for a historic midterm that will provide the first major referendum on President Donald Trump's first two years in office.

Democrats appear to poised to make big gains in the House, challenging in many GOP-held seats. But it's unclear whether they will be able to win the 23 seats they need to take control of the House.

Republicans are hoping a favorable map in the Senate can help weather the storm and give their party something to crow about when the dust settles.

And both sides are competing furiously in governors races, where more than half are up for grabs.

Historic levels of enthusiasm on both sides of the aisle, confirmed by a brand new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, are complicating the forecasting, leaving both sides anxiously awaiting Tuesday's results.

In the final "Meet the Press" before Tuesday, anchor Chuck Todd peppered politicians and analysts about how they see the election shaking out.

Here's a glimpse at their thoughts on the three major battlefields.

The House

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report's list of competitive races paints the picture of a historically large battlefield in the House, with dozens of Republican incumbents playing serious defense.

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats heading into the final weekend with a clear edge among likely voters, but what's unclear is how that edge will play out in individual races.

Democrats have a 7-point edge in the generic ballot, as 50 percent of likely voters said they'd prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress. Forty-three percent of those voters said they'd prefer a Republican majority in Congress.

Democrats are performing best with minorities, young voters, college-educated voters and women. Republicans score best with white voters without a college degree, men and white voters.

The stark differences among voting blocs underscores the importance of the mobilization efforts done by the parties to bring their most reliable voters to the polls.

Democrats have spent tens of millions of dollars looking to boost minority turnout, while President Donald Trump and his allies have crisscrossed the country to juice enthusiasm among the voters that helped him win the White House in 2016.

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Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, a guest on the "Meet the Press" panel, said that while Republicans have historically been better at turning out their base during midterm elections, that the president's calculus may not ultimately pay off thanks to how voters view him.

Belcher pointed to the NBC/Wall Street Journal's finding that more voters want to send a message that Trump and the GOP need a "check and balance" in Congress, than those who want to give Trump more allies in Congress.

"The president's job disapproval right now really means something," Belcher added.

But to Hugh Hewitt, the GOP conservative pundit and Salem Radio Network host, the new polling shows a bright spot for Republicans — the economy.

"Seventy four percent of people think their own personal economics are good. That is a remarkable thing," Hewitt said. "Do you vote to keep the economy humming or do you vote against President Trump?"

The Senate

Unlike the House, where Republicans are playing defense in districts where Trump isn't too popular, the Senate map runs right through states Trump won easily, and sometimes overwhelmingly, in 2016.

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, admitted on "Meet the Press" that "it's a very different sort of political battlefield in Senate races than House races."

But he praised his candidates for building their own personal brands in their home states and said there's still a "narrow path" for a Democratic Senate majority.

Even as polls show North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp trailing Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer in the wake of her decision to vote against Justice Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation, Van Hollen cautioned that "no one should ever count Heidi Heitkamp out." He also called Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, locked in a tight race against Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, as a "fighter."

The weakness of New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, whose bribery charges ended with a hung jury, has inserted uncertainty into the Democrats already difficult map. But Van Hollen said he's "confident Bob Menendez will win," criticizing Republican Bob Hugin's past as a pharmaceutical company head.

One surprising battleground has been Tennessee, where popular former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen remains better-liked than Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn but still trails at the polls.

Van Hollen said Bredesen is "pragmatic" and willing to work with Trump to help Tennessee. But Tennessee Republican Gov. Phil Haslam, the head of the Republican Governors Association, espoused confidence about Blackburn's campaign and argued that Tennessee voters have been mobilized to vote for Republicans after the Kavanaugh confirmation.

"Marsha Blackburn has run a really good race," he said. "The color of the jersey you're wearing up there is really important. And I don't know exactly. But I think the Kavanaugh hearings had a 5 or 6-point swing in Tennessee. I personally think Marsha will by at least that much."

Governors

The gubernatorial races could prove to be true wildcards.

Republican incumbents are poised to cruise in blue states like Vermont, Maryland and Massachusetts. But Democrats are giving conservative Republicans tough challenges in red states like Oklahoma, Georgia and Kansas.

Haslam credited that uncertainty to an electorate that looks at these elections through a less partisan lens than through which they view federal elections.

"People look at the practical aspects of electing a governor," he said.

"Who's going to create jobs here? Who's going to produce the best schools? And who's going to run our state's budget in a way that works? And so it's a lot different decision voting for your governor than it is for your senator, and definitely than it is for your House member."

Along those lines, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams argued that her background will help her become the first Democratic governor since 2003.

Pushing back against Trump's recent criticism of her qualifications, Abrams said she is the "most qualified candidate" in her race against Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

"I am a business owner, a tax attorney who trained at Yale Law School. I am a civic leader who helped register more than 200,000 Georgians. I am a very accomplished political leader who worked across the aisle to improve access to education, transportation, and I blocked the single largest tax increase in Georgia history," she said.

"There is no one more qualified standing for this office in Georgia."