I have always limited coverage of polling far in advance of elections as they have very little predictive value. This spring many bloggers as well as professional journalists have been obsessed with polls suggesting big Republican wins this fall. While that may or may come about, I felt it was far too early to make any definitive predictions. More recent polls from the Associated Press and Gallup are suddenly upsetting the conventional wisdom showing considerable improvement in the prospects for Democrats.
The AP poll shows Democrats moving ahead of Republicans in the generic poll:
The tenuous 45 percent to 40 percent preference for a Democratic Congress reverses the finding a month ago on the same question: 44 percent for Republicans and 41 percent for Democrats. The new readout came as the economy continued showing signs of improvement and the tumultuous battle over the health care law that President Barack Obama finally signed in March faded into the background.
“To the extent that Democrats can focus on job creation rather than health care, they tend to do better,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at California’s Claremont McKenna College.
Of course this is a generic poll–in many races the candidates have not even been chosen making predictions in specific races extremely difficult.
Simply looking at the fundamentals, Republicans should pick up seats this year. The party out of power typically does well in off year elections. Republicans are especially trying to capitalize on this trend by blaming Democrats for problems which are actually the result of Republican mismanagement when in power. Republicans also benefit this year because George Bush is no longer in office or on the ballot, Barack Obama is not on the ballot, younger and independent voters who now tend to vote Democratic are less likely to vote in an off year election, and the Democrats must defend many seats which traditionally have been in Republican hands.
There are many factors which make it too early to predict the outcome. Republicans have done better than the Democrats in the spin war since Obama took office, but they also might have peaked too soon, leaving the Democrats time to sharpen their message. While turn out by the young and Democratic-leaning independents will be less than in 2008, the Democrats are trying to mobilize them.
It is not clear to what degree health care will remain an issue in the fall. From a political perspective the Democrats did make a mistake in supporting the individual mandate (originally a Republican idea) along with passing a bill which most voters do not understand when the benefits will not be seen for a few more years.
The economy is likely to remain the most important issue. While the economy is improving it is too early to predict whether it will rebound enough, as well as to what degree voters will blame each party.
We must always keep in mind that issues and events we cannot predict could totally change the electoral picture, as with the 9/11 attack and Katrina. At other times issues which we think have major importance wind up being forgotten by election day, such as with George H. W. Bush looking unbeatable after the first Iraq war.
Another factor which makes this election more difficult to predict than usual is the strong anti-incumbent sentiment. The poll reports:
Only 36 percent said they want their own member of Congress to win re-election this fall, a noteworthy drop from the 43 percent who said so in April and the lowestAP-GfK poll measurement this year. Much of the restiveness seems to be among Republicans: While Democrats were about equally divided on the question, Republicans expressed a preference for a new face by a 2-to-1 margin.
Despite this I have my doubts that many Republicans will suddenly vote Democratic this year to throw out the incumbent. This might be seen more in primary races as the tea party movement (ie the far right Republican base) replaces Republican incumbents with even more conservative Republicans. I suspect that in November there will be some surprises but most seats which have not changed hands in recent years will remain in the hands of the same party unless there is a real demographic reason for a change.
The most prominent cases of throwing out the incumbents has been with the tea party movement moving the Republican Party to the right. It is also too early to predict what the effect of the tea party will be in November. The increased enthusiasm from the Republican base might help the Republicans. It is also possible that their efforts to push the GOP to the extreme right will lead independents who voted Democratic in 2006 and 2008, but wavered in recent polling, to reject the increased extremism of the GOP and vote Democratic.