The September consensus: nearly unanimous. “Voter anxiety over the economy, health care and financial security,” the Washington Post’s Dan Balz observed, “threatens to put Republican candidates across the country on the defensive this fall.” Veteran Congress watcher Stuart Rothenberg predicted “a heavy-damage scenario for the Republicans.” The House minority leader even guaranteed that “we’re going to win the House back.”
Those prognostications were made in September 2002, before the last mid-term election, and they were all wrong. Far from incurring irreparable political damage, House Republicans spent September and October rallying their political base—then regained control of the Senate and picked up three House seats.
Ominous Headlines Return
Four years later, Republican lawmakers are again facing ominous headlines: “GOP’s Hold On House Shakier” (Los Angeles Times), “GOP Seen to Be in Peril of Losing House” (New York Times) and “More GOP Districts Counted as Vulnerable: Number Doubled Over the Summer” (Washington Post). Balz again offered an ominous assessment of Republican prospects, attributing the Republicans’ dire political straits to “President Bush’s low approval ratings, the sharp divisions over the war in Iraq, dissatisfaction with Congress and economic anxiety caused by high gasoline prices and stagnant wages.” With independent voters “alienated” and the Democratic base “energized,” once-safe Republican incumbents are now “on the defensive.”
Ignored was a Gallup Poll released in late August that found an unexpected tightening in what pollsters call the “generic ballot” question: “If the election were being held today, which party’s candidate would you vote for in your congressional district?” Pundits looking to assess the national mood regularly cite the results of this question, and did so promiscuously earlier this year when Democrats enjoyed seemingly insurmountable advantages such as 54% to 38% in late June, or 51% to 40% immediately before Congress’ August recess.
But then something happened as lawmakers spent August reconnecting with their constituents. The advantage for the generic Democratic candidate slipped from 11 points in late July, to nine points in early August, and then to a statistically insignificant two points (47% to 45%) in its August 18-20 survey. Among those most likely to vote, moreover, the Democrats’ advantage disappeared entirely, with Gallup reporting a dead heat: 48% to 48%.
Anxious to understand this movement toward Republican candidates, Gallup sorted the responses to the generic-ballot question into two new categories. Are Democrats, it wanted to know, “competitive in U.S. House districts currently held by Republicans,” or “just getting a larger-than-normal share of the vote in the districts they already hold”? Obviously, the odds that Democrats will retake the House are exponentially greater if they demonstrate strength against Republicans in their own backyards than if they simply accumulate larger-than-usual margins in their own districts.
Using area codes and exchanges to identify whether the voter resides in a district represented by a Democrat or a Republican, Gallup reviewed the 13 polls in 2006 in which it asked this question. Through July, Democrats not only posted two-to-one margins in districts they currently represent, but were unusually competitive in Republican-held districts as well.
For example, Democrats outpaced Republicans in Republican-held districts in several polls, with their advantage peaking at an astounding 11-point margin (51% to 40%) in late June. This verifies the widespread perception in conservative circles that Republican base voters were in open revolt against their party earlier this year.
But then Democrats began to lose favor in Republican districts, falling steadily from 51% in late June, to 46% a month later, then to 43% in early August, and finally to the current low of 40% in the August 18-20 survey. Support for Republicans, in contrast, rose 14 points in six weeks, from a low of 40% to its current level of 54%.
This 25-point turnaround began prior to the August 10 revelation that London and U.S. intelligence officials had thwarted a terrorist plot to blow up a dozen airliners. Interestingly, Gallup also reviewed its last pre-election poll in 2004 and learned that Republicans managed to expand their House and Senate majorities with an identical 54%-to- 40% margin of support in their own districts.
Gallup rightly concludes that “the ‘action’ in this year’s House elections will be in the Republican-held districts” and that whether they maintain or increase that support “will be key to their ability to keep partisan control of the U.S. House.”
National Journal’s Charles Cook predicted last week that “the House will turn” provided “nothing changes.” Gallup’s insightful analysis indicates that a politically meaningful change may be underway already.