With new revelations every week, the Russian election meddling story has made Washington dizzy for months, but pollsters in swing states are having a hard time seeing its impact beyond the Beltway — leaving forecasters of the midterm elections torn over the story’s potential impact.
“There is some bubble syndrome,” pollster Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research told The Washington Times.
Mr. Coker’s firm conducted significant polling in swing states during election season last year. Like other leading public opinion professionals, he argues that the murkiness of Russian activity and the lack of a clear “smoking gun” have not convinced voters far from the nation’s capital — especially the unaffiliated.
But pollsters also note that history favors Democrats — at least in the House of Representatives.
Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, notes that since the Civil War the party controlled by the White House has lost seats in 36 of the 39 midterm elections.
Unaffiliated voters could make next year even more unpredictable. Donald Trump won the presidency partly by leveraging their anger against the status quo in Washington.
But the Russia story has bogged down the White House, and the perception is growing that Washington is even more paralyzed than before his victory, pollsters say.
Nationally, reports about Russia as a national threat lag behind the drama that grips Washington. The Pew Research Center’s latest survey on the subject was in January just before Mr. Trump moved into the White House. It found 79 percent of Americans felt that the Islamic State group posed a major threat while 54 percent said the same about “the power and influence of Russia.”
Pollsters note that the survey data bear a striking difference from April 2016, when 42 percent viewed “tensions with Russia” as a major threat. That survey had 37 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans viewing Russia negatively.
After accusations that Russian hackers attacked the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Pew found that 67 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans viewed Russia negatively.
Wondering how this affects swing voters, pollsters agree that Mr. Trump’s low approval ratings could have a major effect on unaffiliated voters. Fifty percent of voters in counties that helped him win in November approve of his performance, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week. But Gallup pegs his latest approval rating at 38 percent overall.
Mr. Trump dominated swing states with his unorthodox campaign that flummoxed pundits and the wider Washington establishment. Whether the Russia scandal pushes swing state supporters away from Republicans depends on how the story develops, pollsters say.
Democrats would have to pick up 24 House seats the to win back the majority after eight years in the minority. The average loss by the majority party during midterms is 33 seats, Mr. Sabato said. Thus far, Republicans have won four special House elections that were seen as referendums on Mr. Trump.
The Senate currently numbers 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Mr. Trump narrowly won the Sunshine State, besting Mrs. Clinton 48.6 percent to 47.4 percent.
Political analysts called his success there “a microcosm of what unfolded nationwide.” While Mrs. Clinton won diverse urban areas of South Florida such as Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the populist Mr. Trump attracted older, white and blue-collar voters from the Panhandle to Central Florida.
Unaffiliated voters were key. Roughly 27 percent of Florida voters identified as independent, and pundits noted their critical role in Mr. Trump’s victory.
“But swing voters probably have not even digested [the Russia controversy] yet,” said Mr. Coker, calling it a “Washington story.”
“At some point, there must be something concrete about Russia — somebody getting caught breaking an actual law and not just stepping over a line,” he said.
Mr. Coker said the midterms could pose a challenge to a few borderline Republicans from Florida’s 27-member House delegation but not enough to sway the balance much. Florida currently sends 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats to Capitol Hill.
Still, the Russia story could help Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in his re-election bid next year, most likely against retiring two-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
“I could see Nelson benefiting — especially if Trump cannot expand the base,” Mr. Coker said.
Considered by political professionals to be “one of America’s swingiest swing states,” North Carolina went for Mr. Trump 49.8 percent to 46.2 percent.
Republicans dominated among older, white, rural voters from the Smokies to the Outer Banks while Mrs. Clinton took the state’s rapidly expanding urban centers of Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
Unaffiliated voters also factored heavily, with 29 percent of the state’s voters registered as independents.
“The politicians are all worried about [the Russia story], the political consultants are all worried about it,” said Carter Wrenn, a longtime state Republican consultant. “But the average guy or swing voter has a lot more sense than most politicians or political consulates.”
After a chuckle, Mr. Wrenn, who once campaigned for Sen. Jesse Helms, agreed that until there is enough evidence that something criminal happened, Russia is simply not on most swing voters’ radar. As such, North Carolina’s 13-member House delegation will probably remain at 10 Republicans and three Democrats.
Mr. Wrenn does lament the current media environment.
“CNN and The New York Times are trying to convict [Mr. Trump],” he said. “Fox is trying to deny he did anything wrong. It is not their job to convict or absolve — just report the facts.”
State Rep. Grier Martin, who oversees races for the House Democratic caucus, sees the swing state in a different light. Currently a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, Mr. Martin served in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003 and spent time at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg as a young field artillery officer at the end of the Cold War.
“I wish we were able to shed the Cold War mentality,” Mr. Martin told The Times. “But [Russian President] Vladimir Putin seems to want to continue that, and he has found a toehold in Donald Trump. The voters of North Carolina know this.”
The swing state where polls open first — New Hampshire — went for Mrs. Clinton 46.8 percent to 46.3 percent.
Political science professor and pollster Andy Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire survey center, said the Russia story could have impact over time.
“Perhaps not directly — but it is part of a larger pattern voters have seen since the election,” Mr. Smith said.
Strategically, Democrats are working to push the president’s approval ratings as low as possible, he said. If the ratings stay beneath 40 percent, then the majority party could lose 40 to 50 seats, similar to the 2006 midterms, he predicted.
“Low job approval dampens the enthusiasm of the president’s party,” Mr. Smith said.
Wyatt Ronan, communications director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, told The Times that Mr. Trump’s approval ratings in the Granite State at the end of June were at an all-time low — especially among independent voters.
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