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A Poll Reversal

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In the last days before Tuesday’s midterm elections, the polls have increasingly reached a consensus on the state of the race: Republicans lead.

Most pollsters over the past few weeks have found Republicans opening a modest but consistent lead when they ask voters whether they’ll back Democrats or Republicans for Congress.

The results are a reversal from polls conducted just over a month ago, when Democrats seemed to have the advantage.

If the recent polls are right — and they may not be — Republicans will almost certainly take the House. The big question on election night would be whether and where individual Democratic candidates could withstand a hostile political environment. Control of the Senate would depend on it.

In one sense, the new Republican strength was foreseeable. The president’s party almost always gets pummeled in midterm elections, especially when his approval rating is as low as President Biden’s, which is hovering just over 40 percent. In the era of modern polling dating back nearly a century, no precedent exists for the president’s party to hold its own in the House when his approval rating is well beneath 50 percent.

But for Democrats, the usual midterm losses for the party in the White House — or even a better than usual outcome — may still be something of a disappointment. Democrats seemed to be in a fairly strong position as recently as a few weeks ago. They gained support over the summer after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and amid rising concerns about the state of American democracy and gun violence. Some news also helped the party politically: falling gas prices and Biden’s surprising legislative successes.

But the Democratic summer surge quickly dissipated. The focus on guns, abortion and threats to democracy has given way to renewed inflation concerns, a falling stock market and a campaign debate that’s often focused on other issues, like crime. In just a few weeks, an even larger Republican lead has replaced the Democratic edge. The once-clear Democratic advantage in the critical Senate races has evaporated, leaving control of the Senate a tossup.

In a typical midterm election, Republicans might be expected to sweep many of the closest races. They might even make breakthroughs in a handful of reliably Democratic districts or states. There are signs this year of the latter: Democrats have raced to defend solidly blue seats in New York, Rhode Island, California and Oregon.

Democrats still show important signs of resilience. The party appears to be highly competitive in the key Senate races, like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. In these states, Republicans have nominated relatively weak candidates who might underperform, even in a favorable national political environment. And there are other bright spots for Democratic candidates in states like Michigan and Kansas, where abortion remains much on the minds of voters.

Yet history and Biden’s low approval ratings might ultimately blot out even these bits of Democratic optimism. The Democrats’ hopes might also be illusory — the product of idiosyncratic polling, which has often erred in many of these same battleground states.

But it is also possible that Democrats can still draw on some of their summer strengths in these states: A Republican candidate who’s an election denier or an abortion initiative on the ballot might turn out enough Democratic voters to keep the party’s candidates competitive or even to propel them to a win.

With just four days until polling places close, there is not much time for surveys to answer these questions. As always, it will be the voters who have the final say.

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