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Is This the First Sign of a GOP Midterm Wave?

Scott Brown on April 10 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Photograph by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Scott Brown on April 10 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Throughout the year, the battle for control of the Senate after November’s midterm elections has appeared razor thin, with the probability of victory seesawing between the parties, but basically amounting to a tossup. As recently as a month ago, various handicappers (like this one and this one) were pointing out that there were few signs of the “wave election” many insiders expected would break for Republicans.

But a new poll of New Hampshire’s Senate race, if it’s followed by others with similar results, could be the first sign that things are indeed tilting toward the GOP. The WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll showed Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and her Republican challenger Scott Brown in a statistical dead heat (46 percent to 44 percent), after every previous poll had showed Shaheen comfortably ahead. Here’s the trend in the WMUR poll going back to the beginning of the year:

If the latest poll reflects what’s really happening, that’s very bad news for Democrats, since they’re fighting desperately to hold on in enough states that they wind up controlling at least 50 seats (in which case Joe Biden would provide the tiebreaking vote). Until now, New Hampshire wasn’t one of the states they seemed in danger of losing. Two weeks ago, Nate Silver put the Democrats’ odds of winning the state at 90 percent.

So it’s important to remember that a single poll often is not indicative of what’s really going on. There are always outliers. What’s usually more accurate is looking at a compendium of polls, like the one offered by RealClearPolitics. That still shows Shaheen ahead by an average of 6.6 percent:

But signs of a wave often don’t materialize until late in the game. Right now, millions of Americans are returning home from summer vacation, tuning back in to the news—and being greeted by a still-moribund economy and a president who seems mainly concerned with lowering his golf handicap. That certainly isn’t going to help the Democrats’ campaign to hold on in the Senate.

If future polls show Democratic candidates struggling in states they were expecting to carry easily, we’ll be able to point back to this one as an early sign of what was coming.

Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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