Thursday, October 02, 2008

Plenty of Questions Still Remain in This Bifurcated Election

By Stuart Rothenberg

Is the presidential race opening up for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), or is GOP Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the middle of a comeback even as analysts note that the financial crisis is hurting the GOP?

Are Democratic House and Senate candidates getting a bounce because of the crisis, or are Republican numbers on ballot tests around the country relatively steady?

There is so much contradictory data out there — some of it seemingly illogical based on the recent news — that it’s hard to know what to believe.

Two polls released the same day by major news-gathering organizations painted very different pictures of the state of the presidential contest. A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that the financial crisis was damaging McCain and the GOP, and that Obama had opened up a 9-point lead (52 percent to 43 percent) in the race for the White House, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Obama leading McCain by just 2 points, 48 percent to 46 percent.

Twenty-four hours later, Gallup’s tracking poll showed McCain erasing a 3-point deficit and pulling even with Obama at 46 percent for each. And 24 hours after that, Obama re-established a 3-point advantage in Gallup’s track — suggesting strangely dramatic movement in a three-day rolling average during heavy news days.

Then there are polls in Michigan’s 7th district, currently held by Republican Rep. Tim Walberg.

A Sept. 23-24 Myers Research & Strategic Services poll for challenger Mark Schauer (D) showed him leading the Republican by 6 points, 42 percent to 36 percent. A week earlier, a National Research poll for the Congressman showed Walberg holding a 50 percent to 40 percent advantage.

It’s certainly possible that a Congressional race could turn that dramatically in a week, especially when a dramatic event, such as a national financial crisis, occurs. But it seems unlikely.

The Democratic poll found the district’s partisan identification as 35 percent Democratic and 33 percent Republican, while the National Research survey found the generic Congressional ballot at 46 percent Republican and 41 percent Democratic, again suggesting two slightly different views of a district that went 54 percent to 45 percent for President Bush in 2004.

But there are some things about this election cycle that now appear crystal clear.

First, the Republican brand remains damaged. The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed voters had a much more favorable view of the Democratic Party than the GOP, and the Republicans trail in both party identification and the generic ballot nationally. Any uptick in the public’s attitude toward the GOP after the party’s convention has now disappeared.

Second, we are in the middle of a bifurcated election, and there is no sign of that changing.

At the Congressional level, voters are using party to make their choice for change, and that has Republican candidates back on their heels in swing districts and in those states and districts that normally prefer Democrats. Democrats still have a very difficult road knocking off Republicans in reliably Republican areas, but elsewhere Democratic opportunities abound.

At the presidential level, however, voters are focusing on the two presidential candidates (not their running mates). Surprisingly, the ABC News/Washington Post poll did not ask respondents about their feelings about the two presidential contenders. But the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll did, and it found both men with nearly identical numbers: McCain 46 percent positive/ 38 percent negative to Obama’s 48 percent positive/38 percent negative.

Given those results, it’s easy to understand that the presidential ballot would be competitive.

The NBC poll also asked voters whether they preferred a candidate who would “end the Bush Administration policies” and “have active government oversight in areas such as prescription drugs and financial institutions,” or a candidate who would “clean up Washington” and “take on waste and fraud in the system such as reducing government inefficiency and pork-barrel spending.”

Those polled picked “clean up Washington” over “end the Bush Administration policies” by a stunning (to me, at least) 67 percent to 29 percent. Again, those results help explain why McCain has so far remained very much in the presidential race.

In general, Republican insiders remain exceedingly nervous about the national political environment, fearing that the economic crisis will keep the electorate’s focus on issues that benefit Obama and his party. That seems reasonable, given that Americans still hold Bush in low regard and seem inclined to give him and his party a disproportionate amount of the blame for bad news. (They also hold Congress in low regard, but so far there is no evidence that is hurting Democratic candidates in general.)

Events are likely to continue to shape and reshape the presidential race, but in the fight for the House and the Senate, the die is already cast. The only question in those contests is “how bad” it will be for the GOP.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 29, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.