District Polls Are Troubling Signs for Democrats

by Stuart Rothenberg September 8, 2010 · 10:38 AM EDT

While serious Democratic observers worry whether their party can somehow hang on to 218 seats in the House, more than a few Republican strategists and neutral observers have become convinced that the GOP is on the cusp of a stunning victory that could at least equal the party’s 52-seat 1994 gain.

Not only have Democrats been unable to change the trajectory of the midterms, but the last few months have served to solidify and strengthen the GOP’s prospects.

The economy is weakening, not strengthening, and the jobs outlook is as bad as it has been in months. The controversy over the building of a mosque/community center near ground zero didn’t enhance President Barack Obama’s reputation, and the upcoming trials of Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) could further embarrass the Democratic Party.

The only good news for the White House is the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq and the beginning of Mideast peace talks. But those issues simply aren’t as salient to most voters as the economy.

The Democratic strategy for minimizing losses remains twofold. First, make the midterm elections a choice between the two parties rather than a referendum on Obama, and second, demonize Republican challengers, thereby making them unacceptable to voters.

The “choice” strategy is appropriate but not likely to succeed. Republicans tried the same strategy in 2006, and it didn’t work. It rarely does if voters are in a foul mood.

The “demonize the Republican nominee” strategy has greater potential, but it requires a costly race-by-race effort that depends on a number of factors, including district demographics and partisanship, the quality of the Democratic candidate, and the baggage carried by both nominees. The approach might save a few Democrats, but it isn’t likely to be widely successful.

Republican enthusiasm is high and almost certainly will remain so until November. Independent voters continue to resemble Republicans more than Democrats attitudinally, and that isn’t likely to change before Election Day, because independents are particularly sensitive to mood.

Together, those two realities guarantee a big Republican midterm election. But it is the possibility of significantly depressed Democratic turnout that creates the potential of a massive Republican year, with House gains comfortably above 50 seats and Senate gains approaching 10 seats.

In other words, unlike a year ago, suggestions that November could be “another 1994” are now entirely reasonable.

All of the national polling numbers, from Obama’s job approval rating to the generic Congressional ballot and the right direction/wrong track question, combined with the number of seats held by Democrats, now suggest Republican House gains in excess of 40 seats.

But my overall assessment of each cycle is always based, in part, on individual contests and district-level polling, not just national numbers.

Polling in individual House districts confirms Democratic risk but doesn’t yet guarantee the massive losses that national polls presage. “Yet,” of course, is the key word in that sentence. We are only now entering a crucial campaign period. We’ll soon know whether Democratic attacks are working.

In recent GOP polling, many Democrats are far below 50 percent on the ballot, and a startling number have been running behind their Republican challengers. Democrats dispute most of those surveys, but some will privately acknowledge that many of their incumbents are in dead heats with lesser-known challengers.

The refusal of Democratic candidates to release their polling is a sure sign of serious trouble.

Rep. Chet Edwards, for example, hasn’t answered GOP polling showing he trails challenger Bill Flores (R) badly. While the Texas Democrat told me earlier this cycle that he never releases his polling, his campaign did release a Bennett, Petts & Blumenthal survey done Oct. 9-10, 2006, that showed him far ahead of then-challenger Van Taylor (R).

Perhaps most disturbing for Democrats is the dramatic change in district generic ballots compared with generic ballots in 2006 and 2008.

GOP polling shows some districts where the generic ballot has flipped 20 points over the past two years, a shift so substantial that it raises questions about the ability of Democratic candidates to gain ground in the next two months.

Three Anzalone Liszt polls conducted in 2008 for Democrat Debbie Halvorson’s campaign in Illinois’ 11th district showed the generic ballot there quite competitive. Democrats held a 2-point advantage in one survey and a 6-point advantage in another, while Republicans held a 2-point edge in the third poll.

But a Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted for challenger Adam Kinzinger (R) early last month showed Republicans with a 16-point advantage on the generic ballot, a huge swing in a district that Obama won by 8 points.

Two polls conducted for a business trade group in the summer and fall of 2008 showed Democrats with a 10-point and an 18-point advantage on the generic ballot in Connecticut’s 4th district, which was won by then-challenger Jim Himes (D). But a recent Ayres, McHenry & Associates Inc. poll done for the conservative American Action Forum, conducted in late July, showed Republicans now with a 6-point edge in the generic ballot.

Finally, in Washington’s 8th district, where Rep. Dave Reichert (R) has survived two tough election cycles, the district’s generic ballot in polling conducted by POS, a GOP polling firm, has flipped from plus-7 for the Democrats in 2006 and in 2008 to plus-7 for the GOP now. In 2004, the generic in the district was even.

Just as important, in the 2008 all-party “top two” primary in Reichert’s district, 48.5 percent of voters cast a vote for a Republican candidate (Reichert was the only one on the ballot), while 49.1 percent voted for one of the Democratic candidates. This year, three Republicans combined to draw more than 58 percent of all votes cast.

If district polls increasingly echo national surveys, we will have a better idea exactly how much damage Democrats will incur and where that damage will be. It looks big now. It could look even bigger in mid-October. This is looking like an election to remember if you are a Republican and to forget if you are a Democrat.