Whatever you think is the true state of the presidential race, this much is clear: the last few weeks’ polls have been better news for Donald Trump than the mid-July to mid-August polls. But those same polls have continued the trend we have seen all year: Trump is still dragging behind other, more normal Republican candidates, and the ultimate question is whether they can pull him up or he will pull them down. In the GOP’s favor, there remains a powerful and unanimous historical trend for the party in power to lose support in the presidential race following an incumbent re-election, and it takes a remarkably bad candidate to buck that trend.
Polling always comes with its share of hazards, and the two big ones in the presidential race this year are (1) whether pollsters should be including Gary Johnson and Jill Stein (third party candidates historically tend to underperform their polls unless they reach a critical mass of support, and Stein at last check is still 8 states short of being on all 50 states’ ballots) and (2) projecting what kind of turnout the Trump campaign can expect with an amateur and severely understaffed ground game. So while we know the basic trends that are screamingly obvious in every poll (Hillary is very unpopular, Trump is even more unpopular, but both will draw a fair number of nose-holding votes), almost everything we think we know about this election from the data should be taken with big grains of salt.
But we use the data we have, with our eyes open. Drawing on the current polling averages available on RealClearPolitics through today’s polls, here’s how Trump stacks up compared to Republicans sharing a ballot with him in contested Senate races:
A few quick notes on this chart. As you can see, the quality of the available polling varies from state to state, so this isn’t all apples-to-apples comparisons. The 2/3/4 Way column shows that a few of the states the poll average doesn’t include Stein (those are marked 3) and in Indiana the polls we have are just Trump vs Hillary head-to-head. I also included a “Fresh” column to note how many polls are included in RCP’s average for that state and how many of those were concluded within the last month. As you can see, some states have been polled a lot relatively recently (Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio), while much of the already-sparse polling in places like Georgia and Missouri is fairly stale. I would have included Illinois on this chart, but RCP had little polling of the presidential race there and none for Mark Kirk’s Senate re-election fight.
Anyway, Trump is now running ahead of the Republican candidate for Senate in four states, and behind in nine; he’s between 4 and 11.5 points behind the GOP’s Senate candidate in eight states, including most of the really major and regularly-polled battlegrounds, and on average he’s running 3 points behind the party’s Senate candidates. Of course, most of these Senate candidates are incumbents – but then, few of them have an opponent as unpopular as Secretary Clinton (the Democrats are running an incumbent in Colorado, former Senators in Wisconsin and Indiana, and a former Governor in Ohio). Of the three races with no GOP incumbent, Joe Heck is 1.7 points ahead of Trump in an open Senate race, Darryl Glenn (who has embraced Trump more than any of the others on this list) is 5.7 points behind him in a race against incumbent Michael Bennet, and Todd Young is 14.5 points back of Trump and Indiana Governor Mike Pence in his race against former Senator Evan Bayh.
For the GOP to hold the Senate, it’s probably enough for Trump to keep the race for the White House close and not kill Republican turnout. But there’s still a lot of game to play: mid-September Senate polls are historically not the last word, and when it comes down to turnout and vote-counting, Democrats historically tend to win a lot more than their share of the close ones.