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Parsing the Polls: The Democrats' (Generic) Edge

Every once in a while a polling number jumps off at the page at The Fix.

Such was the case with the most recent Diageo/Hotline poll in which the sample was asked whether they would support a generic Democrat or a generic Republican for president if the election were held today. Forty-seven percent chose the Democratic candidate while 29 percent went with the Republican. For those English majors out there (don't worry, The Fix is in your ranks), that's an 18-point differential.

These generic ballots tests -- either for Congress or for president -- should be read cautiously, since other surveys testing head-to-head general-election match-ups of actual candidates tend to show Republican candidates running even or ahead of their Democratic counterparts.

Why the discrepancy? Let's parse the polls!

First, a closer look at the Diageo/Hotline question. As mentioned above, the overall sample -- 800 registered voters -- gave the generic Democrat a 47-29 edge over a generic Republican. Eight percent chose "neither" and 16 percent either didn't know or refused to answer.

Among Republicans, 71 percent opted for the generic GOP candidate while seven percent chose the Democrat; 21 percent either said neither (6 percent) or that they didn't know (15 percent). Compare that to the 87 percent of Democrats who said they would back a generic candidate from their own party and the 4 percent who said they would support a generic Republican. Just 9 percent either chose neither or didn't know.

Clearly, Democrats are strongly unified at the moment while Republicans are something short of energized (about their crop of candidates and/or the party's prospects) heading into 2008. The 16-point discrepancy between self-identifying Democrats and Republicans who say they would back a candidate from their own party is a testament to this disparity of intensity.

As significantly, the generic Democratic candidate enjoyed a 35 percent to 17 percent edge in the survey among independents, although 15 percent of independents said they wouldn't support either party's candidate and 33 percent either didn't have an answer or refused to answer.

Ask any pollster why Democrats made such wide gains in Congress and state legislatures around the country in 2006 and they will tell you that independents acted like Democrats. That is, rather than splitting roughly down the middle in terms of their support for the two major parties, independents overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates. This poll suggests that behavior continues.

The "factor" explaining why independents are swinging to Democrats and why Republicans seem less excited about a generic GOP presidential candidate is -- without question -- President George W. Bush, according to an informal survey of Democratic and Republican pollsters.

Although Bush is not named in the question, survey experts believe that voters have a difficult time envisioning anyone other than the current president when asked to think of a "generic" Republican candidate for president. Thus, it follows that in a poll where Bush's favorable rating was 38 percent and his unfavorable mark was 59 percent, and where just 32 percent approved of his handling of the war in Iraq compared with 65 percent who disapproved (including 54 percent "strongly"), the "Bush effect" would hurt a generic Republican presidential candidate's ability to compete with a generic Democrat.

It also follows that when actual candidates are put into the mix, the Bush cloud seems to disappear. Although Diageo/Hotline did not do general election match-ups, which robs us of direct apples to apples comparisons, a scan of recent general-election numbers gives Republicans some reason for hope. (A point also made by a Hotline reader last week.)

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted late last month showed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) leading Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) 47 percent to 43 percent, while former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) led Clinton by a statistically insignificant 45 percent to 44 percent margin. Giuliani and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) were tied at 43 percent in that survey.

A Time poll showed Giuliani ahead of Clinton 50 percent to 41 percent and ahead of Obama 45 percent to 44 percent. McCain held a 48 percent to 42 percent margin over Clinton and a 45 percent to 43 percent edge on Obama. (More on the Time poll here.)

But just because President Bush's name won't appear on the 2008 ballot, it doesn't mean that his impact won't be felt. Bush's low approval numbers are the result of a number of factors, but none is larger than his handling of the war in Iraq. The American public long ago soured on the conflict and has expressed increasing skepticism about whether the United States can "win" the war.

Each of the three leading Republican candidates for president -- McCain, Giuliani and former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) -- has largely backed Bush's way forward in Iraq, including the recent troop "surge." If the situation in Iraq stays where it is or worsens, 2008 could ultimately become a referendum on Bush and the war (much like 2006), leaving the Republican nominee in the position of defending a policy that the majority of the American people opposes.

In the end (and with a nod to all the caveats inherent in citing generic ballot polls), the wide gap between generic Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in the Diageo/Hotline poll suggests the political landscape on which the 2008 presidential campaign will be fought has real potential to be tipped strongly in Democrats' favor.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 11, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Eye on 2008 , Parsing the Polls , Republican Party  
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