Blue wave builds: How far will it reach?

 Joe Biden "toasts" supporters with a drink he received during a visit to the Barrio Cafe in Phoenix on Thursday.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden “toasts” supporters with a drink he received during a visit to the Barrio Cafe in Phoenix on Thursday.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

With election day just over three weeks away and millions of ballots already cast, the chance of a Democratic wave has increasingly grown, pushed by an anti-Trump wind blowing through the nation’s suburban precincts.

The contours of that wave show up both in the big picture of the presidential race and in the more detailed examination of races further down the ballot.

Since his first debate with the president, Joe Biden‘s lead has grown to double digits in a series of national polls. On the congressional level, freshman Democrats who had expected to face trouble this year are, with a few exceptions, now on solid ground while Republicans in once-reliably conservative districts worry about being swamped.

The question is how far that wave will reach.

At full strength, a Democratic wave could give the party an expanded majority in the House as well as control of the Senate and White House and at least a couple of state legislative chambers that now have Republican majorities.


But whether those gains will fully materialize remains a question. The biggest factor — as it has been throughout this election cycle — will be Trump.

The outlook 25 days out

As of Friday morning, at least 7 million Americans already had voted, according to Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, who tracks voting statistics.

All the usual indicators — TV ratings for the debates, poll questions about voter enthusiasm, the number of people contributing money online — point to a record number of voters casting ballots, despite the likelihood of long lines at some polling places, court fights over mail-in ballots and efforts in some places to intimidate voters.

Unlike some past elections, there’s little concern about voter apathy: Eight in 10 voters said it “really matters who wins” the election and seven in 10 described themselves as “extremely” motivated to vote, according to a large-scale survey released Friday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

As voter intentions have firmed up, the trend has grown increasingly Democratic. Rather than the usual pattern of the race tightening as it goes down the stretch, Biden’s lead has grown over the past week since Trump’s belligerent performance in the debate, which clearly turned off a significant number of voters. His subsequent COVID-19 illness has done nothing to help Trump; the way he’s responded may have made matters worse for him.

While the race could slip back to its pre-debate norm — a Biden lead of seven or eight percentage points, rather than the current margin of around 10 — it’s also possible that Biden’s lead could hold up or even grow a bit. That was the pattern in 1980, when voters late in the election decided they had had enough of incumbent President Carter, and his challenger, Ronald Reagan, shot from narrowly behind to a 10-point victory.

For now, at least eight incumbent Republican senators are in races that either they trail or are too close to predict. Democrats would need to win four of those contests to gain Senate control, assuming that their one endangered incumbent, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, loses and Biden wins, allowing his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, to break ties as vice president.

Contests for the House show a similar picture. The Cook Political Report, one of several nonpartisan election handicappers that both parties rely on, has reevaluated House races repeatedly this fall. Each time, they have added more Republicans to their endangered list.

Suburban districts in traditionally Republican areas, including Omaha, Cincinnati and Indianapolis — where Republicans escaped the Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections — have become increasingly hostile to the party this time around, Dave Wasserman, the House expert at Cook, noted in his most recent assessment.

“Right now, the most likely outcome is a Democratic net gain of between five and 10 seats,” Wasserman wrote. That would, of course, be a deep disappointment to Republicans, who had hoped to at least chip away at the majority that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) built in the midterms.

Further down the ballot, Democrats hope that their gains in the suburbs could allow them to flip control of legislatures in a few states where Republicans currently control both houses, Texas and North Carolina being the top targets. That would give the party a say in redistricting after the current census in two big, fast-growing states where Republicans until now have had a free hand to draw the lines to their advantage.

In most of those races, Democrats now enjoy a significant cash advantage, thanks to a huge surge in online contributions plus some strategic investing from big donors, much as proved true in 2018.

Without question, it’s Trump that is driving all those trends.

Fewer voters than ever are willing to split their ballot between the parties. That means that even state races have become nationalized, and candidates have limited ability to control their own fate.

The problem for Republicans is that the election is ending the way it started — as a referendum on the president, which he is losing.

Pew’s numbers show that Trump supporters overwhelmingly say their motivation is to cast a ballot for him, more than to vote against Biden. On the other side, about six in 10 Biden backers say their primary motivation is to cast a ballot against Trump.

That disparity has remained true even though, on average, voters have grown a bit more favorable to Biden and comfortable with his leadership than they were earlier this summer, Pew found.

The Pew survey, which questioned a huge sample — 10,543 registered voters who take part in a panel of voters that the research center maintains — from the day after the debate through Monday, provides a detailed look at what’s driving the voters’ verdict.

First, voters have rendered a clear, negative judgment about who Trump is. Only a third of voters, for example, say the word “compassionate” describes Trump well (two-thirds say it describes Biden). About the same low share call the president “honest,” and even fewer say he’s a “good role model.” Voters do credit Trump for standing up for what he believes in, but the other characteristics outweigh that.

Voters have also turned thumbs down on what Trump does. Just 40% said they had confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the coronavirus, for example, compared with 57% who said that about Biden. Just 30% said they had confidence that Trump could “bring the country together,” compared with 50% who felt that way about Biden.

The result is that Trump has lost a small but significant sliver of voters who backed him in 2016 — about 8% of them, Pew finds, consistent with other surveys. Biden, by contrast, has held on to a larger share of voters who backed Hillary Clinton last time.

Voters who cast ballots for third-party candidates in 2016 also are largely shunning the president, with about half saying they’ll vote for Biden, about a quarter for Trump and the remaining quarter saying they’ll once again go for someone else.

And voters who did not cast a ballot in 2016, either because they were too young or just sat it out, but do plan to vote this year, split heavily for Biden 54% to 38%.

Trump, who barely won in 2016, has lost ground among longtime voters and failed to gain new ones. He could still win — the election forecast model at, for example, gives him about a one-in-seven chance. But he’s rapidly running out of time.

Debate over debates

The fact that Trump continues to trail badly makes his dodging and weaving over when and whether to debate Biden again all the more puzzling.

On Thursday, as Chris Megerian and Janet Hook reported, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the scheduled Oct. 15 debate would take place virtually, with the candidates in separate studios.

From a health standpoint, that made sense. Trump may believe he is fully recovered from COVID-19, but there’s no way to know for sure that he’s no longer contagious: As medical experts note, negative tests are sometimes wrong, and some patients have been known to remain contagious for as long as 20 days, Ron Lin reported.

Standing on a stage with a contagious person talking loudly for 90 minutes is a risk no candidate would take, let alone a 77-year-old front-runner like Biden.

But Trump promptly rejected the idea of a long-distance debate, saying he wouldn’t “waste my time.”

His campaign aides know better: A nationally televised debate could be Trump’s last, best chance to shift the race. They began offering up counterproposals.

As of now, it appears the two will likely meet for a town-hall debate on Oct. 22, when the third debate had been scheduled, assuming that Trump doesn’t suffer a relapse. That likely would be their final encounter. Biden’s campaign has shown no interest in scheduling a third debate within days of the election, as Trump’s aides have proposed.

Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.

The latest from the campaign trail

South Carolina has long been a reliably Republican state, but Sen. Lindsey Graham is scrambling to save his reelection. He’s hoping that the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett‘s nomination to the Supreme Court, which he’ll chair, will consolidate his conservative support, Hook reports.

Graham’s Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, has been heavily outspending the Republican incumbent. Harrison, who is Black, faces tough math in getting to 50% in a state with a long history of racially polarized voting, but the race enters the final weeks as a surprising toss-up.

In Michigan, another battleground state, Seema Mehta finds that working-class white women, who backed Trump in 2016, have soured on him.

And on Thursday, Biden, Harris and Vice President Mike Pence all converged on Arizona in a sign of that state’s importance in the election, as Hook, Mehta and Melanie Mason reported.

In a brief exchange with reporters, Biden once again refused to take a position on expanding the Supreme Court, a goal of his party’s left, which he’s been reluctant to embrace.

The VP debate

Did you miss the vice presidential debate? Need a refresher on key points? We’ve got you covered.

— As Evan Halper, Megerian and Mehta reported, the debate between Harris and Pence was far more civil than the Trump-Biden encounter and probably gave voters a better sense of the differences between the two candidates.

— My colleagues and I did a round-by-round scorecard of the exchanges.

— Mark Barabak and Jim Rainey offered up their key takeaways. And Matt Pearce provided this fact-check of assertions the candidates made.

— Of course, as Brittny Mejia wrote, the most attention-getting aspect of the debate was that housefly in Pence’s hair, which the Biden campaign quickly turned into a meme.

— And, as Hook wrote in her analysis, the Harris-Pence encounter may have given voters a preview of the matchup for 2024. Both candidates debated with at least one eye on their political futures.

The latest from Washington

Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote about the surreal atmosphere at the White House this week as staff largely stayed away, either because they’re in quarantine or fear they could end up there, and Trump offered up sometimes wild claims in a series of videos.

Officials have refused to say when Trump last had a negative coronavirus test. They’ve conceded that their previous claims that he was tested daily were false.

Meanwhile, as Emily Baumgaertner wrote, the administration is making scant effort to trace contacts of people who may have been infected in the White House outbreak, and no one has the legal authority to force them to do so. More than 30 people are known to have tested positive, but officials have refused to provide a full accounting.

The Barrett confirmation hearing will put a spotlight on California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Jennifer Haberkorn writes. Many Democrats are frustrated with Feinstein, fearing she will not take a hard enough stance against the Republican effort to push through Barrett’s nomination. Harris also serves on the committee and may feel pressure to tone down her usual sharp questioning to avoid antagonizing voters, Haberkorn wrote

Barrett’s conservative faith has created an uncomfortable debate over religion and policy, Del Wilber wrote. Democratic senators are treading lightly on the subject, fearing a backlash. Republicans have preemptively accused them of religious bigotry, saying the Democrats are prejudiced against Catholics.

Don Lee and Molly O'Toole examined the long-term economic impact of Trump’s immigration policies. And Tracy Wilkinson and O'Toole looked at how Biden would likely change U.S. policy in Latin America.

The latest from California

Election years in California mean ballot propositions, and we’re keeping you on top of them.

John Myers took this look at the November ballot questions overall.

Liam Dillon analyzed how this year’s Proposition 21 differs from the rent control initiative that was on the ballot two years ago.

And Suhauna Hussain looked at how Uber and Lyft are pushing Proposition 22 by aiming messages directly to voters’ phones — a new, expensive and, to many, invasive campaign tool.

Beyond the ballot props, the election features a number of major Los Angeles County races, with top billing going to the heated contest for district attorney between the incumbent, Jackie Lacey, and her challenger, George Gascón.

Stay in touch

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to If you like this newsletter, tell your friends to sign up.

Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.