Predicting the outcome of congressional elections, especially in the mid-term, is one of the great guessing games of political mavens. Short of polling every contested district, the best tools we have are asking a national sample which party’s candidates they plan to vote for and measuring how enthusiastic partisans are about voting.
Conventional wisdom says that a sour economy and a revved-up conservative base will lead to big gains by Republicans, perhaps so big they win a majority in the House and come close to wiping out the Democrats’ advantage in the Senate. Polling using the tools described above shows that both are certainly possible. But the data also expose enough volatility among independents to make cautious people hedge their bets.
Our Zogby Interactive congressional generic ballot question is consistently showing Republicans with leads of no more than three percentage points. The most recent (July 26) found 43% of likely voters saying they plan to vote for a Republican, 40% saying Democrat and a significant 14% not sure. The current average of all polls according to Real Clear Politics has Republicans ahead, 44.7% to 41.4%. Gallup has the Democrats up by four, and Rasmussen has the GOP ahead by 10.
If the generic ballot were a perfect indicator of which party will control the House, Republican John Boehner could feel pretty good about replacing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. But because it doesn’t at all measure how close individual races will turn out, and whether one party will win a greater share of these, you can’t extrapolate the generic ballot into how many seats each party will take.
Zogby International doesn’t measure voter enthusiasm. Those who do are finding a significant advantage for Republicans, such as Gallup’s most recent poll showing 46% of Republicans are enthusiastic about voting in November, compared with 28% of Democrats. That is the number that really frightens Democrats, who know that without Barack Obama on the ballot, it will be a challenge to incite the minority and young voters who carried him to the White House.
Higher turnout from Republicans and the economy are the best reasons to believe Republicans will pick up seats. If Republicans are to make this a so-called “wave election” that brings them a congressional majority, they will need solid majorities of independent voters. Our most recent Zogby Interactive had Republicans ahead by 10 points among independents, with 26% undecided. Holding that margin on Election Day certainly makes a new GOP congressional majority very possible.
However, there is no evidence that a majority of independents are enamored with Republicans. In our July 26 poll, just 22% of independents approved of the job performance of congressional Republicans, which was 10 points less than the 32% approval for Democrats. To be blunt, both numbers stink.
Republicans are not making the case with independents that they offer a better choice than do the Democrats. An angry electorate punishes incumbents and the party in power.
There is another telling result in our question about congressional job approval. A majority of Republicans (55%) disapprove of their party’s performance. (By contrast, 68% of Democrats approve of their party’s performance.) The Republican base is angry, and their enthusiasm has a downside. They are demanding that GOP candidates strictly follow their script, and they have helped candidates who have done so win nominations over people who might have had a better chance of winning in November. (Prime examples: Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada.) Where Republican candidates are seen as too moderate, there could be challenges by conservative independent candidates like the one last year in special election in a northern New York district that gave Democrats their first congressional win there in more than 100 years.
Democrat interest groups exercised the same the toxic influence from the left in the 1970s and 1980s, negating Nixon and Watergate and helping Republicans by the 1980s become the majority party. Republicans now run a similar risk. The economy and the electorate’s still unquenched thirst for change give the Republicans a tremendous advantage. Republicans can kick it away by being perceived as too extreme and too likely to bring back policies voters rejected in 2006 and 2008.
I feel safe saying that Republicans will cut into the Democratic majorities. Beyond that, there is just too much uncertainty for anyone to be making bold predictions.