“Electoral Armageddon” For Dems

Poll sets tongues wagging, knees shaking

Gallup’s latest polling on the Generic Ballot—which measures whether registered voters would rather vote for a Republican or Democrat in the House—has media folk reaching for souped-up adjectives and congressmen reaching for Nancy Pelosi’s throat. Here are the findings from the Gallup report by Frank Newport published yesterday:

Republicans lead by 51% to 41% among registered voters in Gallup weekly tracking of 2010 congressional voting preferences. The 10-percentage-point lead is the GOP’s largest so far this year and is its largest in Gallup’s history of tracking the midterm generic ballot for Congress [since 1942].

The largest GOP lead in Gallup’s history! “Tidal Wave?” asked Politico. “Electoral Armageddon?” wondered Chris Cillizza. Perhaps. But it’s also important to put the figures in context and downplay the world-ending assumptions some might easily and sensationally read into them—particularly given that just six weeks ago the Dems led in the same poll, and particularly because there are still eight weeks before Election Day. It’s also key to note that the poll does not account for the idiosyncrasies of individual races. It’s a mood poll, and moods change like the weather. Or, like a Democrat reading this poll.

Despite the dramatic headlines, there’s been plenty of astute reporting about the poll. Politico actually made a valiant effort—at least for Politico—to position the polls somewhat delicately, tempering those who might rush to the “wave is coming” meme, while not underplaying the seriousness of the poll’s results for Dems.

The generic ballot poll is not necessarily an indicator of how House races will go district by district, but is more of an indicator of the national mood of the electorate. Yet, the ominous poll numbers suggest that the strategy of Democratic leaders to stay below-the-radar during the August recess has been a failure. That strategy has been driven by a desire to limit the connection between vulnerable House Democrats and their party leaders in the nation’s capital, said a House Democratic leadership aide.

Shaky Dems turning to poll prodigy Nate Silver for comfort, lately at home at The New York Times’s website, would have been left cold. Notoriously finicky about which polls to trust and precise about his reasons why, Silver chimed in this morning—even though “I don’t usually like to comment on individual polls”—calling the poll a likely outlier. Still, he argued, the news is likely to get even worse for Democrats than some have been saying:

Making matters worse still for Democrats, Gallup’s survey — and some other generic ballot polls — are still polling registered rather than likely voters, whereas its polls of likely voters are generally more reliable in midterm elections. At FiveThirtyEight, we’ve found that the gap between registered and likely voter polls this year is about 4 points in the Republicans’ favor — so a 10-point lead in a registered voter poll is the equivalent of about 14 points on a likely-voter basis. Thus, even if this particular Gallup survey was an outlier, it’s not unlikely that we’ll begin to see some 8-, 9-, 10-point leads for Republicans in this poll somewhat routinely once Gallup switches over to a likely voter model at some point after Labor Day — unless Democrats do something to get the momentum back.

In a sharp and brisk analysis of the Gallup poll and a recent conflicting poll reported by Newsweek, Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal stresses the importance of looking at the averages among various competing polls on the midterms. He writes that:

We could obsess further over the consistent differences (“house effects”) among pollsters, but what is far more important, is that the averages show a GOP lead that has been trending in the Republican direction all summer. That trend is consistent with the historical pattern identified here on Friday by political scientists Joe Bafumi, Bob Erikson and Chris Wlezien, the ‘electorate’s tendency in past midterm cycles to gravitate further toward the “out” party over the election year.’

That historical context is something for outlets to note on their way to grab off-the-record moanings from those Dems aiming their slingshots at Obama and Pelosi. But if there’s one lesson about yesterday’s Gallup poll, it might be this: Whether or not an electoral Armageddon is on the horizon, this is bad news for Democrats that could just get worse, no matter how it’s spun. As Blumenthal concludes:

So while the “unprecedented 10-point lead” reported by Gallup probably exaggerates the Republican lead, any result showing a net Republican advantage on the so-called generic ballot is bad news for Democrats. Bafumi and his colleagues estimated their 50-seat gain for the Republicans assuming a two-point advantage for Republicans on the generic ballot, which they project will widen to a six-point lead by November. If the Republican lead on the generic ballot is already that wide (or close), their projection for the Democrats would worsen.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.