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Democrats' 'Generic' Lead

Like just about every one of the last 33,000 or so national surveys that have been taken, the results of the new Washington Post-ABC News poll have some bad news for Republicans. Yes, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) does appear to be running competitively with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). But that may be of little comfort to House GOP candidates and incumbents after they scroll down to this question:

5. If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives were being held today, would you vote for (the Democratic candidate) or (the Republican candidate) in your congressional district? (IF OTHER, NEITHER, DK, REF) Would you lean toward the (Democratic candidate) or toward the (Republican candidate)?

This is the so-called "generic ballot" test, and the results weren't pretty for the GOP: The generic Democrat leads 52 to 37 percent among all voters and 53 to 38 percent among registered voters. That 15-point spread roughly matches the results on this question in other WashPost polls so far this Congress, though a few surveys have shown a slightly narrower split.

Any discussion of the generic ballot must begin with some caveats. The first thing to remember is that the election is still several months away; most voters aren't paying attention to House races yet and may not even know the names of the candidates who will be on their ballots. Sub in the names of real candidates, particularly entrenched incumbents, and the numbers would change. It's also important to note that this is a national poll, not broken down by competitive districts or states.

"I have found that at this point in the cycle the generic tends to reflect the overall mood of the public, if there's a strong wind for one party or against the other party," said Stu Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. "So I think that's what you're seeing."

President Bush's approval rating stands at 29 percent, and just 14 percent of the public thinks the country is headed in the "right direction." Congressional Republicans are suffering as a result of that national dissatisfaction, not necessarily because of any real unhappiness with their individual candidates or challengers. Still, the generic ballot warrants monitoring.

"We watch it, and obviously we put greater weight on it the closer you get to the election," Rothenberg said.

Indeed, once October rolls around, the predictive value of the generic test appears to rise. Take a look at some past results from the Gallup Poll, and compare them to what happened on Election Day:

* In 2006, the last two surveys taken before Election Day put Democrats up seven points and 13 points on the generic ballot. Democrats gained 30 seats.

* In 2004, one of the last two polls had Democrats up one point, while the other had Republicans up three points. Republicans gained three seats.

* In 2002, the second-to-last pre-election poll had Democrats up 3 points, but the last poll had Republicans up six points. Republicans gained six seats.

If you want to really wonk out on the subject, check out this fine 2006 post from Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com. He looks at tons of data, and generally concluded that most late generic ballot tests come close to predicting the actual national popular vote in House races (though some polls seem to overstate the Democratic total).

Again, the bright side for the GOP is that it's NOT October or November yet. There is time to turn things around. But something really does have to turn around, and the polls need to follow suit, or Republicans will be facing genuine losses in November rather than just the "generic" kind.

By Ben Pershing  |  June 17, 2008; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign  
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