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GOP seat lead shrinks as Biden approval ticks up — CBS News Battleground Tracker poll

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Latest CBS News Battleground Tracker poll
CBS News Battleground Tracker: GOP lead shrinks as Biden approval ticks up 05:22

Republicans head into the fall still in position to gain enough House seats for a majority, but a tumultuous summer has made their advantage appear a little smaller today — with a trend so far pointing toward narrow gains instead of a wave. Our CBS News Battleground Tracker estimates Republicans at 226 seats today, down from 230 estimated in July. A majority of 218 is needed to win control.

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While Republicans continue to lead with people who prioritize the economy, at least three things are tempering their overall advantage:

  1. Abortion rights: it's still on voters' minds, buttressing Democratic support and helping them with women in swing districts. 
  2. Gas prices: most report prices in their area coming down, and with them, views of Biden's handling the economy are up a bit – part of a slight rebound we see among the Democratic base.
  3. The extent to which this election is about anything other than a still-shaky economy, such as:
  • Donald Trump — while midterm elections are often referenda on the sitting president, this one is about the former, too. For a majority of voters he's a factor, either to support or oppose him. Democrats are winning voters whose vote is based "a lot" on how they feel about Trump.
  • Republican nominees: both women and independents (key voting groups) are more likely to say it's Republicans who've been nominating candidates they'd call extreme – more so than Democrats' nominees.

What about Mar-a-Lago and the documents search?

  • File it under "About Donald Trump." The FBI search hasn't directly changed many votes because of the sharp partisan splits over it, but then, it could be part of a larger issue holding back Republicans, as Donald Trump stays on voters' minds.
  • Trump is a big positive for his own partisans, but they were voting Republican anyway. Most rank-and-file Republicans want party leaders to stand with Trump here and not criticize him. But that sets up a challenge for the GOP because...
  • Trump is net-negative for independents. Independents would prefer Republicans criticize Trump to support him on Mar-a-Lago. Half of independent voters name Trump as a factor in their vote, and by four to one, they're voting to oppose him (far worse than Biden's support-oppose ratio).

Most independents, like most Democrats, see the Mar-a-Lago search as an attempt to protect national security. They differ from Republicans, who see a political attack on Trump.

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Abortion

Why it's emerged as a big factor:

  • There's a widespread perception among women that if Republicans gain power, they'll make restricting abortion a priority (65%), even more so than inflation (56%).
  • More Democrats (77%) say abortion is "very important" than describe any other issue that way — it's neck-and-neck with gun policy and ahead of the economy and inflation. 
  • By more than two to one, likely voters say their vote for Congress will be to support abortion rights rather than to oppose them. 
  • Motivation around the issue is one-sided: Republicans tend to say their vote isn't about abortion, but most Democrats say the overturning of Roe boosted their support for their party's candidates.
  • It might help Democratic candidates with people on the fence: third-party and undecided voters for whom the overturning of Roe is a factor say it makes them want to support Democrats over Republicans by four to one.
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Related: Watch key group of college-degree women

In the last two elections, White women with college degrees were critical to Democrats' winning coalition, voting for them by double-digit margins. And then this year amid economic pessimism, Democrats slipped with this group.

Today we see Democrats rebounding: their lead with White college-degree-holding women has increased by seven points since July and is currently 13 points. It's not back to 2018 levels, but helps account for some of the shift in seats because these women are critical in key swing districts.

More of those who were undecided have moved toward the Democrats, for now. The issue of abortion is a motivator — most say their vote this year will be to support abortion rights.

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Gas and the economy — can Biden rally base?

A majority of voters say gas prices in their area are going down.

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Fewer Americans view the economy negatively than a month ago, though things are still seen as bad. Fears of a recession loom, but more voters now see the economy as at least holding steady than did so in June.

Biden's job approval, and specifically his job ratings on handling bread-and-butter issues like the economy, inflation, and gas prices, have all risen. His overall job approval number is the highest it's been among registered voters since February.

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Here's why improving views of the economy helps bolster the Democratic base heading into fall:

  • Much of Mr. Biden's gains come from Democrats. He's up 8 points since July on Democrats strongly approving of him. And we see a marked boost in their feelings about the county generally: 52% now say things are going at least somewhat well, up from 39% in July.
  • This starts to reverse some of the losses we've tracked among Mr. Biden's own party over the last year. These developments may have given the base a reason to reassess.
  • Look at young people, whom the Democrats count on: the cancellation of some student loan debt is particularly popular among voters under age 30. And the president's overall approval rating has moved into positive territory among them now, up from last month.

The next hurdle for Democrats, though, is getting young people to vote in the off year elections — they still don't vote in the kind of numbers older people do.

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Among voters overall, the improvement is smaller: 28% now say things are going well, up from 22% last month. That's still low, of course. 

The Inflation Reduction Act gets slight majority approval from voters, but split views over whether it will help them personally. Similarly, a slim majority back canceling student loan debt.

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So why do Republicans still have an edge?

Democrats might stem the tide or shore up their base, but Republicans still have a big lead among voters who prioritize inflation and the economy. Plus, a year of voter frustration over those issues won't go away overnight, as shown by the belief of more voters that Republicans will prioritize inflation if they win control of Congress, than Democrats will if they win.

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There are also just more safe Republican seats than Democratic ones in the House. Republicans need only to flip four competitive seats to win a majority. Our model indicates that they would be well positioned to do so if the elections were today.

This CBS News/YouGov Battleground Tracker survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,126 registered voters interviewed between August 24-26, 2022. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the U.S. Census American Community Survey and Current Population Survey, as well as to 2020 presidential vote. The margin of error is ±2.4 points. The House seats estimates are based on a multilevel regression and post-stratification model incorporating voter responses to this survey. Each party's seat estimate has a margin of error of ±13 seats.

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