Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Tidal wave? 10-point poll edge for GOP

Democrats thought things couldn't get much worse on the electoral front — and then they went home to campaign.

A new Gallup poll released Monday shows Republicans with a record 10-point edge over Democrats on the "generic ballot" test — the question of whether voters prefer a Democratic or Republican congressional candidate. It’s the largest GOP polling edge at this stage in the 68 years of the generic ballot poll.

While party optimists say Democrats may cling to a small majority after the November election, an increasing number of Democratic strategists now say privately that they fear the House is already lost.

The Gallup poll, coming at the end of a brutal August for Democrats and President Barack Obama, reinforces the rapidly forming prevailing view that the horizon is as bleak for Democrats as it ever has been.

Indeed, the Republicans' 51 percent to 41 percent for Democrats on the generic ballot poll represents the largest Republican edge heading into a midterm election since the poll was first conducted in the 1942 election cycle, giving them greater reason for optimism than in the weeks leading up to their 1952 and 1994 House takeovers. It also represents a stunning reversal from the 6-point lead Democrats posted in the poll mid-July.

Worse for Democrats, the news comes after they've spent most of the last month on the campaign trail, touting their accomplishments for local communities and trying to remind voters of what life was like when George W. Bush was president.

The message that things are better than they could be hasn’t exactly been a winner with voters.

"You have millions of Americans worried about the economy, jobs, deficits, their children's future, and we're out there talking about what — Bush, Iraq?" said Chris Kofinis, a longtime Democratic strategist. "Our message needs to be more positive, more hopeful, more focused, and we need [to] talk to the economic reality of everyday Americans and their families. There is time to pivot, but we're just not there yet."

The generic ballot poll is not necessarily an indicator of how House races will go district by district, but more an indicator of the national mood of the electorate. Yet, the ominous poll numbers suggest that the strategy of Democratic leaders to stay below the radar during the August recess has been a failure. That strategy has been driven by a desire to limit the connection between vulnerable House Democrats and their party leaders in the nation’s capital, said a House Democratic leadership aide.

Although top Democrats have visited the districts of some of their vulnerable members during the past month, they typically have limited both national and local press coverage of those contacts. Day by day, more rank-and-file Democrats are taking potshots at their congressional leaders in an effort to distance themselves from them on policy — and sometimes personally.

Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama even mused that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might lose her job by death rather than party defeat.

"Never cross a bridge until you come to it," Bright said when asked whether he would vote for Pelosi for speaker if he's reelected. "She may get beat, she may step away, she may get sick and die." The local paper reported the comments as lighthearted.

By contrast, Republican leaders have openly visited battleground districts across the nation and have encouraged press coverage. They've even sent around photographs of Republican lawmakers at the kinds of "town hall" meetings that became horror houses for Democrats last August.

Operating from what seems like a defensive crouch, Democratic congressional strategists have complained that they have been hurt by a litany of political miscalculations and negative events outside their control.

They contend that White House officials have been “distracted” by foreign policy crises in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus social issues, such as the proposed New York mosque, that have kept them from focusing on the No. 1 issue of the economy. They also cite the bad timing of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which erupted in April, as Democrats were hoping to sell the benefits of their recently enacted health reform package.

Now, Obama can offer less help on the campaign trail: His Gallup numbers are upside down, with 43 percent approving of his performance and 49 percent disapproving.

While he uses the Oval Office Tuesday night to talk about American progress in Iraq — where many Democrats, including the president, opposed the "surge" strategy that helped stabilize the region — his party's congressional incumbents are getting hammered on the state of the economy. District by district, and at the national level, Republicans are making the argument that Democrats have done nothing to reverse an unemployment level that is hovering just below 10 percent despite — or because of — their efforts to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the system.

Republicans say the equation is pretty simple: Bad polling is a function of unpopular policy.

"The Democrats’ budget-busting, job-killing agenda has not only hurt middle-class Americans, but it has been a disaster politically as well," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "President Obama and Speaker Pelosi promised this would be a ‘recovery summer,’ but since that announcement, the economy has only slowed and the unemployment rate remains unacceptably high. This is an administration and a Congress that is grossly out of touch with the voters and the poll numbers are a reflection of that.”

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly notes that Gallup and other polling organizations have bounced around a bit in their generic polling and that Pelosi remains confident.

"The speaker's been very clear that we're going to retain the majority," Daly said.

Indeed, Democrats held a lead in the Gallup polling earlier this summer. But the three largest weekly leads for Republicans in the history of the midterm poll have come in this election cycle.

Add in an "enthusiasm gap," showing that Republican voters are twice as likely — 50 percent to 25 percent — to tell a pollster that they are "very" enthusiastic about voting this year, and a general reliability of GOP voters to show up for midterm elections, and the typically staid Gallup organization is adding its name to the list of analysts who foresee a major electoral shake-up.

"Republicans' presumed turnout advantage, combined with their current 10-point registered-voter lead, suggests the potential for a major 'wave' election in which the Republicans gain a large number of seats from the Democrats and in the process take back control of the House," Gallup writes. "One cautionary note: Democrats moved ahead in Gallup's generic ballot for several weeks earlier this summer, showing that change is possible between now and Election Day."

The latest Gallup numbers also call into question whether individual Democratic candidates will be able to withstand the national wave that appears to be building against their party and could overwhelm some who had thought they were secure.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told campaign audiences that he typically takes the Gallup results and gives the front-running party an additional four points for intensity, with “likely voters.” Based on past experience with the Gallup survey, he added, “the actual vote in November doesn’t deviate by more than a point or two.”

One former Democratic aide who holds out hope that Democrats will recover by doing more to show voters that they side with them — rather than just saying it — said the best-case scenario is a "two- to three-seat, cling-onto-it" majority.

In September 2006, just before Democrats won a 30-seat sweep to take control of the House, they led with 52 percent to 41 percent in the Gallup generic ballot test. Republicans need to net 39 seats to win control in the next Congress, and several major political prognosticators have said Republicans have a real shot at surpassing that number to win the House.

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