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Local vs national: Two views of the 2010 election

Scan the two national polls released Tuesday -- Washington Post/ABC and NBC/Wall Street Journal -- and you quickly draw one conclusion: Democrats will lose the House this fall.

Scan the dozen (or so) polls released in targeted House districts yesterday by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the picture is far murkier.

So, what gives?

The simple fact is that both sets of polls can be right. Polls are a snapshot in time, not a predictor of where things will end up in November. And, at the moment, the national picture is grim for Democrats even as the district-by-district analysis looks considerably brighter.

The competing polls then highlight the fundamental question at work in the rapidly approaching -- 56 days away! -- 2010 midterms: Is this a national election or a local one?

The national numbers are daunting for Democrats.

The generic ballot -- typically an accurate gauge of which way and how strongly the national wind is blowing -- showed Republicans with a wide 13-point edge over Democrats among likely voters in the Post/ABC poll; the NBC/WSJ poll pegged the Republican generic ballot edge at nine points among likely voters.

Each of the polls also shows the number of those who disapprove of how President Obama is handling his job outstripping the number who approve; Obama stood at 46 percent approval/52 percent disapproval in the Post/ABC survey, 45 percent/49 percent in NBC/WSJ.

The economy remains the dominant issue in the country, with more than six in 10 (62 percent) of registered voters calling it "very" important in the Post poll, even as the Democrats' edge on the economy has faded since earlier this year. (Democrats held an eight-point lead in July when voters were asked which party they trusted more on the economy; that lead is now just two points.)

Polling at the local level tells a very different story.

Data released by the DCCC and campaigns over the past week show targeted Reps. Mike Arcuri (N.Y.), Bobby Bright (Ala.) and Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (S.D.) all leading their Republican opponents. Even Rep. Tom Perriello (Va.), long dismissed as a loser this fall, is running competitively.

(Worth noting: All of the polls were, not surprisingly, conducted by Democratic firms.)

In each of the races mentioned above, the Democratic incumbent is on television with ads that hit the Republican opponent -- a strategy that, party operatives insist, all of their vulnerable members should adopt if they want to win this fall.

The release of so many polls -- after a summer in which Democrats made almost none of their numbers public -- is meant to signal that while the national environment is treacherous for the party if these races are cast as a choice between two candidates rather than a referendum on Democrats, the majority can be held.

While both sets of polling -- the national and the local -- could be right today, it's not very likely that each will bear out on Nov. 2.

The recent history of midterm elections suggests that they tend to be more national in nature -- the 2006, 2002 and 1994 midterms were all nationalized. And it's telling that in every first-term, midterm election (but one) since World War II, the president's party has lost seats in the House. (The lone exception was in 2002 when Republicans won eight House seats in President George W. Bush's first midterm.)

And, in the Post/ABC poll 31 percent of people said that the economy was "one of the most" important issues to their vote while just 8 percent named "local issues where you live" as one of the most important.

Those numbers suggest that we are heading for a nationalized election where Obama's faltering approval numbers and the widespread distaste with the direction of the country overwhelm the strengths or weaknesses of individual candidates, particularly in House races where the combatants tend to be less well known than in Senate or governor's races.

The belief that national issues will win out is what is driving recent prognostications by political handicappers such as Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg and Larry Sabato -- all of whom have suggested the Democratic majority is either gone or teetering on the edge.

The next two weeks will be critical in determining whether they are right.

Democrats are -- and will continue to -- exploit their financial edge in races around the country between now and next week, seeking to make these contests into local choices rather than a national referendum.

By Sept. 21 (or so), Democrats have to hope that their candidates across the country will have succeeded in shining a very bright light on their Republican opponents. If not, the Republican TV onslaught seeking to link Democratic incumbents and challengers to the party's unpopular policies in Washington will assert itself and make a wave election not just a possibility but a likelihood.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 8, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Battlegrounds, Democratic Party, Economy Watch, House, Republican Party  
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Next: Examining the Gallup generic ballot question

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