Wednesday, July 21, 2010

We Don’t Need a DNC Lecture on Midterms

By Stuart Rothenberg

The folks at the Democratic National Committee’s communications shop apparently believe that those of us — political analysts and handicappers, campaign professionals, journalists and political junkies — who have spent years following Congressional elections and dissecting polls are idiots.

And because we aren’t real sharp, we need the DNC to explain things to us. I guess we are supposed to forget that the committee is an advocacy group and that its primary goal is electing Democrats, not dispassionately reporting on campaigns and projecting election outcomes.

The DNC’s memo, “Putting Voter Sentiment and Recent Polls in their Proper Perspective,” came only days after House Democrats erupted in anger following White House Communications Director Robert Gibbs’ acknowledgement that Democrats could lose control of the House in the fall. As such, it needs to be seen as part of Democrats’ efforts to push back against Gibbs’ very accurate but impolitic assertion.

The memo includes selected poll numbers from various sources to make two major points: The 2010 midterms won’t be anything close to the political waves of 1994 and 2006, and the party faithful “have every reason to be hopeful that we can weather a treacherous political climate and maintain strong majorities in the House and Senate.”

Of course, for every national poll number that seems to lend credence to the DNC’s argument, there is one that it happens to omit that undercuts the memo’s fundamental point.

For example, while the DNC memo uses the president’s job performance numbers from two recent polls that showed him with a net positive rating (50 percent approve/47 percent disapprove in the ABC/Washington Post poll and 52 percent approve/44 percent disapprove in Bloomberg’s survey), the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (45 percent approve/48 percent disapprove) and Gallup’s July 5-11 survey (46 percent approve/47 percent disapprove) showed a net negative approval for President Barack Obama.

Gallup’s most recent Obama weekly approval rating of 46 percent (July 12-18) is identical to President Bill Clinton’s 1994 pre-election Gallup approval rating (Nov. 2-6), just days before the Democratic Party got slaughtered in Clinton’s first midterm.

The DNC memo addresses generic ballot results only in passing, noting that “generic support for Republicans this year is nowhere near that of Democrats in 2006.” In October 2006, the Washington Post survey showed Democrats with a 13-point advantage, but the most recent ABC/Post survey had Republicans only up by a single point.

Apparently someone at the DNC hasn’t figured out that that’s a 14-point swing in the generic, and a swing that large is likely to produce a considerable swing in House seats.

Interestingly, Gallup’s generic ballot, which the firm asserts has proved to be a “highly accurate predictor of the national vote for the House of Representatives in midterm election years,” has shown the two parties roughly even among registered voters throughout the year.

If you take that as good news for Democrats, think again. This far out from Election Day, Democrats usually have an advantage. But midterm elections are all about turnout, and Republicans normally have a turnout advantage.

That’s why the folks at Gallup note that “the closer the registered voter results get to an even split, the better Republicans can expect to do, given usual turnout patterns.”

This year, of course, Republican enthusiasm is high — the highest since Gallup started asking its relative enthusiasm question in 1994 (“Compared to previous elections, are you more enthusiastic about voting than usual, or less enthusiastic?”). Moreover, Gallup’s net enthusiasm score is “the largest relative party advantage Gallup has measured in a single midterm election-year poll.”

I should note that some of the DNC’s observations are on the money. Yes, the Republican Party’s image is still in the tank. And yes, Obama is more popular now than President George W. Bush was at the time of the 2006 midterms. But those statistical realities are not news to those of us who follow elections, and they may have only a small effect on the size of the Republican wave in November.

Finally, it’s interesting that the DNC memo relies solely on national survey data. Trying to understand the fight for the House and Senate by looking only at national numbers is like driving a car with one eye closed.

District-level and statewide poll data show Democratic candidates in anywhere from dangerous to terrible shape.

The Democratic generic ballot has dropped precipitously in most competitive Congressional districts, and many Democratic incumbents, both in the House and Senate, are performing horribly in ballot tests.

How bad are the Democratic numbers? About as bad as they were in 1994, and about as bad as Republican numbers were in 2006.

We have no way of knowing for certain how badly Democrats will be punished by voters in November. But unless things turn around completely, the damage will be severe. Both the House and now the Senate are at risk.

Gibbs may have been undiplomatic to admit the obvious. But Democrats don’t look in touch with reality when they waste their hard-earned credibility distributing memos that guarantee that their party will “maintain strong majorities” in both chambers of Congress.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 20, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.