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Intensity among young voters and women could help Democrats overrun the GOP in midterm elections

John Harwood
Americans lately have expressed satisfaction with the prospect that lower taxes will boost their paychecks. Yet that doesn't mean the economy will dominate voters' attention this fall.

As midterm elections approach, Republicans take comfort from rising support for their tax cuts. If 2018 becomes a pocketbook campaign, that helps them a lot.

But will it? Recent events offer reasons for doubt, and a new poll Tuesday shows the danger a campaign on other subjects poses for the GOP.

Americans lately have expressed increased satisfaction with both the strong economy and the prospect that lower taxes will increase their paychecks. That in turn has edged up approval of President Donald Trump and Republican Congressional candidates in some opinion polls.

Yet that doesn't mean the economy will dominate voters' attention and energy when they decide whether Republicans keep their House and Senate majorities in November. Social and cultural issues continue to generate more passion throughout the Trump presidency, especially among two critical elements of the Democratic coalition.

One is young people, the constituency speaking out loudest in the wake of the massacre of 17 students at a Florida high school last week. Attempts to rally around the cause of gun control follow earlier efforts provoked by the Trump administration's actions concerning race relations and gay and transgender rights.

The other is women. The revelations about sexual violence and harassment that have echoed across American society have triggered a flood of Democratic women candidates. With Trump himself targeted by harassment allegations, the issue exacerbates the GOP's longstanding vulnerability among female voters.

The last two weeks have demonstrated growing political risks from both groups. First came the revelation that Trump kept top White House aide Rob Porter on the job even after the FBI reported repeated allegations of domestic violence. Now the Florida school shooting has generated a ferocious initial backlash against the National Rifle Association and its Republican allies.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released Tuesday shows how that could shape both the issue agenda and voter turnout in the fall campaign . The telephone survey of 1,249 voters nationwide took place Feb. 16-19 and carries an error margin of 3.4 percentage points.

On issues, it showed Republicans at near-parity with Democrats in voter opinion of their handling of the economy, the federal budget and infrastructure. Republicans have a clear opening to battle on that terrain.

But Democrats enjoyed wide margins on handling gun violence, domestic violence and sexual harassment – all issues now commanding wide public attention. By 53 percent to 38 percent, voters said Democrats do a better job than Republicans of representing their values.

As it happens, that was the precise margin by which voters said they wanted Democrats rather than Republicans to win control of the House of Representatives. And the Democratic advantage extended beyond simple voter preferences to voter enthusiasm.

Thus 63 percent of those aged 18 to 34 backed Democrats, while Republicans drew just 44 percent from their strongest age group, voters aged 65 and older. Women backed Democrats by a margin of 30 percentage points; men split evenly between the two parties.

Democrats also evinced stronger interest, with 59 percent saying they are more motivated to vote than usual; just 41 percent of Republicans said so. Young voters called themselves more motivated than older voters did, women called themselves more motivated than men did, blacks and Hispanics called themselves more motivated than whites did.

The Quinnipiac survey, more auspicious for Democrats than others lately, is just one poll. An Economist/YouGov survey last week showed Democrats leading by 4 percentage points on the so-called "generic ballot." Over the weekend, Trump boasted on Twitter of another poll showing Republicans ahead.

But the average across surveys monitored by the website RealClearPolitics now shows Democrats leading by 7.6 percentage points. In their quest to gain the 24 seats they need for a House majority, Democrats have gotten a fresh boost from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's new redistricting plan.

Republicans haven't given up their legal fight against that new Pennsylvania map , which could change the electoral calculus for several seats.

More significantly, though, they face partisan adversaries with advantages in voter intensity and, at least for now, the issues to sustain them.