When veteran political analyst Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, spoke at the SVIA Fall Forum in October 2017, he pegged the odds of Democrats reclaiming control of the U.S. House of Representatives this fall at 40 percent.
Fast forward six months, to Cook’s return appearance at the 2018 SVIA Spring Seminar in late April, and the Democrats’ odds, at least in his view, had risen sharply. He was now putting the Democrats’ chances at 60 percent to 65 percent, if not higher. He also was giving them a 40 percent chance of capturing control of the Senate, up from his estimate last October of 25 percent to 35 percent.
Why the revised outlook? While many factors played into his forecast, Cook said the key was President Trump’s continued low popularity. He noted that in the past four midterm elections when the president’s approval rating was 46 percent or lower, the controlling party suffered an average loss of seven seats in the Senate and 40 in the House.
This year, the Democrats only need a net gain of 24 seats to capture the House. And as of late April, President Trump’s approval rating stood at 38 percent in the weekly Gallup poll, while his disapproval rating stood at 58 percent.
Cook noted that high disapproval ratings for a sitting president tend to result in a strong turnout among voters of the opposing party, and indeed, he said, intensity was running high among Democrats this spring. Intensity levels were lower among Republicans, he said, perhaps because they had been lulled by the idea that they control the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Still, Cook cautioned that circumstances could change by November. Republicans could become energized, he said, if a Supreme Court vacancy were to open up, or if they thought Democrats were pushing the idea that President Trump should be impeached in connection with the special counsel’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Democrats theoretically could become more energized by a Supreme Court vacancy, too, or by a Trump scandal, he conceded, but with the Democratic base already about as pumped up as it could get, there didn’t seem to be much room for the intensity level to go up among Democratic voters.
Other ominous signs for Republicans, Cook said, were the results of polls asking voters whether they would vote for a Republican or Democratic Congressional candidate right now, with no actual candidates named. The consensus view is that Democrats need to be winning such polls by a margin of six to eight points if they’re actually going to win a majority of the seats in the House in November. In the last such polls by RealClearPolitics and NBC/The Wall Street Journal, Cook said, Democrats led by seven points. A FiveThirtyEight poll put the lead at eight points, while a Fox News poll had it at five. A poll by McLaughlin Associates, the organization that President Trump uses, had it at four points.
Capturing the Senate in November will be a tougher challenge for Democrats than winning the House, Cook said. Of the 26 Senate open seats, 10 are in states that President Trump won decisively in 2016. Conversely, only one open Republican seat is in a state won by Hillary Clinton.