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Republicans Have Midterm Advantage, But It Still Doesn’t Look Like a Wave

Image: U.S. Citizens Head To The Polls To Vote In Presidential Election

File photo of a voter in Los Angeles, 2012 Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

When you look at the state-by-state polls, Republicans have the clear advantage to win control of U.S. Senate in tomorrow’s elections, and they might even catch a wave. Just see the new NBC/Marist polls of Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana we released yesterday. But our new national NBC/WSJ poll provides a striking counterpoint: This doesn’t look like a Republican wave election. Nationally, Republicans (at 46%) and Democrats (at 45%) are deadlocked among likely voters in our congressional preference score, and a similar split exists among likely voters living in the Top 10 Senate battlegrounds, GOP 47%, Dem 46%. Consider the gains Democrats have made here among all likely voters:

  • Aug. 2014: GOP 49%, Dem 41% (GOP +8)
  • Sept. 2014: GOP 49%, Dem 44% (GOP +5)
  • Mid-Oct. 2014: GOP 46%, Dem 44% (GOP +2)
  • Now: GOP 46%, Dem 45% (GOP +1)

Look at how high voter interest among Democrats has gone up and how it’s gone down for the GOP:

  • Mid-Oct. GOP 59%, Dem 47% (GOP +12)
  • Now: GOP 58%, Dem 57% (GOP +1)

And then consider the GOP’s popularity in past midterm cycles:

  • Oct. 1994: 41% positive, 30% negative (+11)
  • Oct. 2010: 34% positive, 41% negative (-7)
  • Now: 29% positive, 47% negative (-18)… By comparison, Dems are 36%-43% (-7)

Once again, this isn’t what a wave election looks like for an opposition party. Are Republicans poised for gains Tuesday night? Absolutely. Are they the favorites to win control of the Senate? Yes. But all of these numbers suggest that something is going on here that should give us pause. Cue our familiar Buffalo Springfield mantra: There’s something happenin’ out here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.

3,153 Miles Later: What Voters Want 2:30

All about Obama?

That said, if Republicans end up running the table in BOTH the red states (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia) and the blue/purple ones (Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina), then our NBC/WSJ poll points to this reason: President Obama. His approval rating stands at 42%, which is unchanged since last month. And it’s even lower in our state NBC/Marist polls -- 41% in Georgia, 39% in Louisiana, and 32% in Kentucky. What’s more, just 27% in the national NBC/WSJ poll think the country is headed in the right direction, and only 36% are satisfied about the state of the economy. And if Tuesday is all about Obama, then there’s an important point to make: Democrats didn’t help their situation in trying to put distance between themselves and the president. Here’s the vicious cycle: Republicans: “Obama stinks!” Democrats: “I don’t disagree!” Voters: “Obama must stink!” And so on… All of that said, our national NBC/WSJ poll suggests that Obama isn’t necessarily the top subject on voters’ minds. Among those preferring a Republican-controlled Congress, 45% say their vote is a positive vote for Republicans in Congress, another 25% say it’s to protest the Obama administration and another 19% say it’s to protest Democrats in Congress. Among those preferring a Democratic-controlled Congress, 41% say it’s a positive vote for congressional Democrats, 27% say it’s to protest Republicans and another say 26% it’s a positive vote for the Obama administration.

One thing’s for sure: The GOP message has been clear

But just look at the closing messages for the GOP Senate candidates -- it’s all about Obama. Whatever the concern from the voter is, the GOP handed them Obama. Tired of gridlock? Look at Obama. The economy isn’t coming back in your area, look to Obama and his regulations. Democrats did not exactly present an alternative case. The GOP message was clear, even if it hasn’t hit critical mass with the remaining undecided voters who do seem upset at Obama and skeptical of the GOP’s promises of change.

Turnout is going to be WAY down

Here’s one thing we can state unequivocally: Turnout is going to be down. In our NBC/WSJ poll, 55% express having high interest in the midterms (registering either a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale). By comparison, 61% had high interest in our final NBC/WSJ polls before both the 2006 and 2010 midterms. And high interest among independent voters -- usually the folks who fuel wave elections -- is WAY down: Just 44% of them have high interest. And that’s another sign that maybe this will NOT be a wave. Wave elections usually are fueled by HIGHER turnout.

It’s (not) the economy, stupid?

If Democrats go down to defeat Tuesday night, one reason will be their inability to get credit for an improving economy. In Oct. 2010:

  • The unemployment rate was 9.5%;
  • The Dow was above 11,000;
  • Obama’s economic handling was 43% in the NBC/WSJ poll;
  • And Republicans held a one-point advantage on which party does a better job on the economy.

Flash forward four years later to now:

  • The unemployment rate is 5.9%;
  • The Dow is above 17,000;
  • Obama’s economic handling remains the same (at 43%);
  • And the GOP holds a nine-point advantage on the economy.

As we’ll discuss below, the Ebola and ISIS storylines really haven’t motivated voters, but what they did do was suck all of the news oxygen, making it difficult for Democrats to campaign on an improving economy. Then again, as political scientist Lynn Vavreck points out in the New York Times, the economy doesn’t play THAT important of an role in a midterm election. “In presidential elections, if the economy grows during the election year, the incumbent president (or the incumbent’s party) is more likely to be re-elected,” she writes. “But while the nation’s economy is a strong shaper of presidential election outcomes, the president himself is the shaper of congressional outcomes.” After all, the unemployment rate was 4.4% in Oct. 2006, and we all know how that midterm election turned out.

Urban vs. rural divide on the economy

But here’s an important thing to keep in mind about the economy: There’s a significant urban-vs.-rural split. Just 29% of rural voters in our NBC/WSJ poll are satisfied with the state of the economy, versus 43% of urban voters. And guess where many of the important midterm battlegrounds are -- in states with big rural populations.

Most voters focused on economy, domestic issues -- not Ebola and ISIS

Even though Obama and the Democrats aren’t getting credit for an improving economy, voters care more about the economy (and other domestic issues) than some of the more publicized issues out there. By a 4-to-1 margin, Americans say that domestic issues like the economy, health care, Medicare and Social Security are more important in their vote for Congress than issues like the Ebola virus and the fight against ISIS, per our newest NBC/WSJ poll. In it, 77% of all voters pick the combined domestic issues, while 19% say subjects like the Ebola virus, ISIS and Russia’s actions in Ukraine are more important in deciding their vote. “It’s not ISIS, it’s not Ebola,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). “It’s come back to the basics.” Strikingly, however, those who are energized on these more international issues are voting for Republicans. The minority of likely voters who say Ebola, ISIS, and Russia are more important to their vote prefer a Republican-controlled Congress by more than 30 points, 63%-29%. By comparison, the majority focusing more on domestic issues prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, 52%-40%. Overall, the individual issues that are most important to voters are job creation and economic growth (23% of registered voters pick that as their No. 1 issue), breaking Washington’s gridlock (another 23%), the deficit (12%), health care (9%) and Social Security and Medicare (another 9%).

71% support a quarantine for health professional treating Ebola

Speaking of Ebola, though, more than seven in 10 Americans support mandatory quarantines for health professionals who have treated Ebola patients in West Africa, even if they have no symptoms, according to our new NBC/WSJ poll. The survey shows that 71% of those surveyed say the health workers should be subject to a 21-day quarantine, while 24% disagree.

Countdown to Election Day: 1 day

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