Probably the biggest question in American politics right now is whether, and how much, the polls may tighten as we get closer to voting day on November 3rd. According to the LeanTossup models, the GOP are substantial underdogs in all three of the Presidency, Senate, and House, but that is based on where the polls are now. If the polls tighten, the Model odds will do the same. The real question is, will they?
There have been three foreign elections since the beginning of 2019 that can shed some light on how this could work – Canada, the UK, and Australia. In all three countries the incumbent government was in varying amounts of danger five months out, but all three were re-elected. How much the polls moved, and why, is instructive. In Canada, the Liberals were in hot water over issues of judicial independence and whether a form of plea deal could be given to a Canadian engineering firm over international bribery charges. The government was rocked by resignations of two senior cabinet officials, and for a brief moment the opposition Conservatives were looking to control the polls. And then time went on, the Liberals got the message back on more fertile ground, and despite a fairly chaotic campaign marred by the release of photos of the Prime Minister in blackface, the Liberals solidly beat the Conservatives and stayed in office.
In the UK, five months out was the leadership race that elected Boris Johnson. At the time the Brexit Party was still high on winning the European Elections and the pro-Brexit right was split between the Tories and Nigel Farage’s insurgency. As the months went on, Johnson would hammer home a very simple message – Get Brexit Done – and the polls went from a chaotic mess to a solid Tory lead which they rode to a December election win bigger than any Tory majority since 1987.
Australia was a slightly different situation – the government was behind by between 6-10% after preferences in late December, and while that lead narrowed going into polling day they did enter election day down. The polls turned out to be bad, and the government beat their polls by about 6%, but even with that, their trendline improved over the last five months. A relentless messaging campaign from the Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Labor’s tax rises and spending plans was a major part of the victory, with the government not really offering much in the way of a plan for themselves beyond a tax cut.
The international comparisons make it clear that the polls can improve a lot for incumbents, but the incumbents did something in each case to make that happen. The three governments dug deep and focused on the flaws of their opponents almost unrelentingly, be it Justin Trudeau’s Liberals tying the Tories to unpopular socially conservative views almost every day, Boris Johnson pitching the election as chaos and more Brexit drama or stability and an end to the chaos, or Scott Morrison going all on Labor’s plans to raise taxes and hurt the economy. The three parties were offering a form of managerial competence against chaos of the opposition, and they were rewarded.
The Republicans would be good to learn the lessons of the governments that have been recently re-elected, as they provide clues to how they could fight the next five months. A relentless negative focus on what the Democrats are promising to do is a much better way to get the polls to tighten than the confused messaging that comes out of the GOP. If they want to win again, or even if they just want to limit losses, the blueprint exists. If they’re smart, they’ll follow it.