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How Democrats can hold the House

How Democrats can keep control of the House this fall. Photo by Jim Bourg/REUTERS

Read any newspaper or blog or watch even five minutes of cable television and the narrative of the 2010 election becomes apparent: Democrats are headed for electoral disaster in November.

And, they very well might be. Heck, even the most partisan Democrats acknowledge privately that the fall election will be a tough one for their side.

But, there is also a belief in some segments of the party that predictions that the House majority is already lost are overstated and that Democrats could hold on this fall -- albeit narrowly.

How? We've laid out five ways -- or indicators -- to keep an eye on below, factors based on our conversations with a handful of the smartest strategists in the party.

To be clear: the scenario laid out below is not the most likely one this fall. But, neither is it entirely out of the question.

1. Get the generic ballot back to even: Much has been written about the generic ballot -- both here and in political journalism more broadly -- and its impact on the fall election.

A quick refresher course: most savvy strategists see the generic as a barometer of sorts for the national political climate. Smart Democrats believe that if the generic ballot shows anything worse than Democrats at even -- or maybe down a point or two -- among registered voters makes it difficult to hold the House.

Why? Because so many critical House races for Democrats are in Republican-leaning areas and even the slightest national breeze blowing at that level likely means unexpected losses for even well-prepared incumbents.

Recent numbers should be encouraging on that front for Democrats. The new Associated Press poll put the generic dead even among registered voters 47 percent Democratic, 47 percent Republican -- and the New York Times/CBS News survey released yesterday gave Republicans a narrow 40 percent to 38 percent edge.

2. Narrow the enthusiasm gap: Midterm elections tend to be a battle between the two parties' bases -- casual voters are much less interested in congressional elections than presidential ones -- and so the enthusiasm gap that has emerged between energized Republicans and dispirited Democrats is critically important to the outcome in the fall.

There are any number of ways of measuring the enthusiasm gap in polling but few of them have much good news for Democrats.

In the New York Times/CBS poll 58 percent of self-identified Republicans said they were more enthusiastic to vote than in past elections while 47 percent of Democrats said the same. The latest weekly Gallup track showed 49 percent of Republicans describing themselves as "very enthusiastic" about voting this fall as compared to 31 percent of Democrats -- a slight improvement from past Gallup tracking numbers but still worrisome for Democrats.

The best way -- we think -- to monitor whether Democrats are closing the enthusiasm gap before November is to look at the difference between the registered voter numbers and the likely voter numbers on the generic ballot. The Post/ABC poll conducted earlier this month showed Republicans with a two-point edge on the generic ballot among registered voters but a massive 13-point lead among likely voters. The AP poll showed a similar dynamic with the generic even among registered voters but with Republicans up 10 among likely voters. Today's Politico poll provides a bit of a counterweight to those numbers, however, with Republicans leading 40 percent to 38 percent among likely voters on the generic.

One smart Democrat estimates that Democrats need to narrow the difference between where the party stands on the generic ballot among registered versus where it stands among likely voters to five points in order to have the sort of enthusiasm in their base they need to hold the House.

3. Pick off a handful of Republican seats: There are seven (or so) Republican-held seats that for a variety of reasons Democrats have a good chance of winning this fall. (We wrote our "Monday Fix" newspaper column this past week on these seats.)

That list starts with districts like Louisiana's 2nd district and Hawaii's 1st district, two seats that President Obama won with better than 70 percent of the vote but, thanks to a scandal in one and Democratic infighting in the other, Republicans currently hold.

Then there are open seats in Delaware's at-large district, Illinois' 10th district and Florida's 25th district where either the partisan makeup of the seats or the candidate matchup lends itself to the possibility of Democratic pickups.

There are also a few longer shots against incumbents like Reps. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.).

If Democrats can win four out of those seven seats, Republicans would need to find 43 pickups rather than 39. That may seem like a pittance but with neutral political handicappers predicting GOP gains right at 40 seats, it could make a major difference.

4. Money matters: Democrats have been encouraged in recent weeks by a number of races that appear to be moving in their direction as the incumbent exerts his/her financial edge over the challenger by running television ads aiming to frame the race. (To show that excitement, they have released a series of polls showing targeted Democrats in better-than-expected shape.)

Republicans have long warned that the month of September would be difficult for them as at both the committee and the candidate level Democrats have an advantage that allows them to go up on television earlier -- a major competitive edge.

The issue is whether -- and how quickly -- Republicans can get to parity in targeted House races. The National Republican Congressional Committee has outraised the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in each of the last four months but, as of the end of July, had $22 million in the bank as compared to $36 million for their Democratic counterparts. Democrats continue to believe that financial disparity enables them to define these races in their favor before voters know who Republicans are running.

The unanswered question: Once Republicans -- committees and candidates -- get to the saturation point on television, do the district-by-district numbers that have moved in Democrats' favor in recent weeks revert back to where they were at the start of August?

5. Obama's approval rating at 50 (or close to it): There's a reason that the president's party has lost seats in the House and Senate in all but one first term, midterm election since World War II. Voters tend to see midterms as a chance to put a check on presidential power, effectively balancing the scales in Washington.

And so, where President Obama's job approval numbers stands has the potential to make a significant difference in whether Democrats can hold some of their marginal House seats.

Obviously, Democratic strategists would like to see Obama get over 50 percent in his job approval score but would likely take anything north of 48 percent.

Most recent surveys peg Obama below that mark. In the New York Times/CBS and Politico polls, Obama stands at 45 percent on the job approval question; the Post poll shows Obama in similar territory at 46 percent. Obama's high water mark in recent data was the AP poll, which showed him at 49 percent approval.

Keep an eye on those five indicators in the final 46 days before the November election. If you see movement in any/all of them in Democrats' direction, it's possible that they could keep the House majority.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 16, 2010; 12:54 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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