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Parsing the Polls: Too Early to See the Wave?

Now is not the best time to be a Republican member of Congress.

A series of independent polls released over the last month show Democrats with an ever-widening lead in the generic ballot question ("If the congressional election were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate in your district or the Republican candidate?"). The most recent survey, conducted by CNN/USA Today/Gallup from March 10-12, showed Democrats with a 16-point edge -- 55 percent to 39 percent.

No polling question is more analyzed and argued about than the generic ballot question. Republicans insist that it has not been an accurate predictor of gains and losses in the House over the past few cycles, while Democrats point to the results as a sign that the American people are ready for a change.

This week's Parsing the Polls will examine the generic ballot question and what it does -- and should -- mean in the context of political campaigns.

First, here's a look at the five most recent national polls testing the generic ballot:

Organization          SurveyDates  GOP  Dem  Diff.
CNN/USA Today/Gallup   3/10-12     39   55   D+16
Fox/Opinion Dynamics   2/28-3/13   34   48   D+14
CNN/USA Today/Gallup   2/28-3/13   39   53   D+14
Democracy Corps (D)    2/23-37     40   48   D+8
Diageo/Hotline         2/16-19     31   46   D+15

Average the five polls and Democrats have a 13.4 percent generic edge. A generic Republican received an average of 36.6 percent of the vote in the five polls while the generic Democrat took 50 percent.

Pollsters of both partisan bents, along with many non-partisan analysts, seem in agreement that the numbers don't look good for GOP candidates this fall -- although most were loathe to use the generic ballot as a predictor of specific seat gains.

"It means that as of mid-March of 2006 this is an electorate that wants to make fundmental change," said Fred Yang, a partner in the Garin-Hart-Yang Research, a leading Democratic polling firm. "Whether that translates into seats is another thing."

Because of the incumbent-friendly redistricting process in 2001, there are very few seats (roughly ten percent of the entire House) that could turn over, even in a year in which the national atmospherics tilt heavily toward one party. In fact, in the 2004 cycle just 34 House members won with less than 55 percent of the vote, according to tabulations made by the Cook Political Report. So, regardless of the mood of the electorate, the vast majority of seats in Congress are simply not up for grabs unless the incumbent is found in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy -- to quote the colorful former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards (D).

That does not mean, however, that Republicans should ignore the generic ballot, according to one GOP consultant who spoke to The Fix on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly about his party's prospects. "The benefit of the doubt in close races is going to go to the Democrats unless something changes dramatically," said the Republican strategist. "We're whistling past the graveyard if we say the generic doesn't matter."

Stu Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, said that he rarely gives credence to the generic ballot by itself, but when put in the context of the "other horrendous polling numbers" for Republicans, he said it gives him pause. Specifically, Rothenberg pointed to the strong majorities disapproving of both President Bush and Congress as well as the large numbers who believe the country is on the wrong track as ill omens for Republicans. "The situation is bad and getting worse for Republicans, and looking at all four [poll questions], the situation is starting to border on the desperate," he said.

How does the current generic ballot edge for Democrats compare to the mood at this time in the 1994 election -- when Republicans retook control of the House for the first time in four decades?

Here's a look at poll numbers from the NBC/Wall Street Journal from the first quarter of 1994 and the first quarter of 2006.

         Right Direction  Wrong Track  Diff.
1994     33%              47%          -14
2006     31               57           -26
         Prez/Approve  Prez/Disapprove  Diff.
1994     55%           36%              +19
2006     39            54               -15
         Congress/Approve  Congress/Disapprove  Diff.
1994     31%               58%                  -27
2006     29                56                   -27
         Generic/GOP  Generic/Dem  Diff.
1994     29%          34%          D+5
2006     38           47           D+9

In 1994 Democrats at this point in the cycle held a five-point edge in the generic ballot test and were benefitting from President Bill Clinton's then strong approval ratings. Voters were unhappy with Congress, but a majority were not yet convinced that the country was on the wrong track.

Charlie Cook, a political analyst and founder of the Cook Political Report, explained that in 1994 "the bottom didn't start sagging for Democrats until early summer," adding: "At this point there wasn't even a whisper that there was a tidal wave out there."

Cook added that the best use of the generic ballot is to "tell you what direction the wind is blowing and whether it is small, medium, large or extra large."

Judging by the current numbers, Republicans better hunker down.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 15, 2006; 8:26 AM ET
Categories:  House , Parsing the Polls , Senate  
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