In key races across the country, the electorate is continuing to divide along the demographic and generational lines that have left the two parties in rough parity for years – limiting each side’s ability to score unexpected breakthroughs or to amass sweeping gains in November.
A wide array of public polls shows that in key contests, voters are aligning between Republican and Democratic candidates in remarkably similar patterns, with only very few exceptions. Almost all major contested statewide races are being defined by a huge gender gap that could prove even larger than in the past several elections. Voters in races almost everywhere are also sharply dividing along lines of education and generation. And while the gap in partisan preferences between Whites and voters of color may narrow somewhat from recent experience, the racial contrast in support for the parties remains stark as well.
“These cleavages are everywhere,” says Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, who served as a lead pollster for President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.
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Because so many contested races are so close, even small shifts in attitudes among these different groups still could tilt most of the toss-up races toward one side and provide them a clear victory. As the party out of the White House during a period of economic dissatisfaction, history suggests the GOP is clearly best positioned to benefit if any such late movement develops among voters. But it appears at least as likely that these deeply etched divisions will produce a result that again leaves the eventual winner clinging to only narrow majorities in the House and Senate.
A closely split result would underscore how difficult it will be for either party to break out of their bitter current stalemate. Amid the worst pandemic in a century, and widespread discontent over Donald Trump’s performance and priorities as president, Democrats anticipated sweeping gains in the 2020 election. But then they unexpectedly lost seats in the House and failed to capture several Senate seats they believed within reach even as Biden won the White House. Now, even amid the worst inflation 40 years, the original Republican expectations from last spring of a towering “red wave” in congressional and gubernatorial races may prove equally illusory, even if Republicans remained favored to flip control of the House.
If the demographic, generational and geographic alignments within the electorate on display again this year cannot be dislodged by events as momentous as a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, or once-in-a generation inflation, or a Supreme Court decision overturning of the 50-year constitutional right to abortion, it is not clear what can reconfigure them. The real signal from this year’s election may be that American politics is fated for years to remain caught on what UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck calls “the knife’s edge” between two increasingly divergent, and even hostile, political coalitions.
Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster, for instance, says flatly, “I would be shocked to see a 52-48 Senate either way.”
Indeed, many analysts in both parties believe the most likely outcome next month may be a Senate again divided exactly 50-50 between the parties – something that has not happened in two consecutive elections since the direct election of senators began just before World War I. Even if Republicans take the House, it now appears likely they will hold a smaller, and more fractious, majority than seemed probable earlier this year; if Democrats defy the odds to defend their already-slim majority, their margin almost certainly will be historically tiny.
The demographic divergences between the two coalitions this year begin with gender. The “gender gap” – the tendency of women to vote relatively more for Democrats, or alternately, for men to vote relatively more for Republicans – has been a widely discussed feature of American politics since 1984, but it could loom especially large this year.
The major data sources studying how Americans vote – including the Edison Research exit polls conducted for a media consortium that includes CNN, the Pew Research Center’s Validated Voters study and the projections by Catalist, a Democratic voter targeting firm – generally agree that in the 2018 House elections and the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, Democrats won most women and lost most men (Pew had the two sides splitting men evenly in 2018.) Overall, these sources determined Democrats ran about 13 percentage points better among women than men in 2016 (when Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first female major party presidential nominee) and around 8-12 points better in 2018 and 2020.
If the trends now evident in polls persist through Election Day, the gender gap this year will likely land toward the higher end of that scale. The latest CNN national survey conducted by SSRS found Democrats winning 60% of the two-party vote among women on the “generic” congressional ballot and just 43% of the two-party vote among men. Other recent generic surveys from CBS and Fox News have shown a smaller gender gap, though also with Democrats winning among women but losing among men.