Public Opinion Watch: 2006 Election Outlook

What are the indicators that will help us predict the outcome of the upcoming midterms?

| Fri Mar. 31, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Article created by The Century Foundation.

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to looking at the outlook for this year’s Congressional elections. One is the “macro” approach, where one looks at a variety of national indicators to gauge the mood of the electorate and how that’s likely to affect the incumbent and challenging parties. The other approach is the “micro” approach, which assesses how each individual House and Senate race is likely to turn out, and aggregates up from that level to assess the likely gains and losses of the two parties.

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The two methods tend to tell different stories and that is particularly true this year. First, let’s look at the macro story. According to these indicators, the GOP is in terrible shape and likely to get swamped by the Democrats in the election. Indeed, by these indicators, as Charlie Cook recently pointed out, the GOP is at least as bad off as the Democrats were at this point in the 1994 election cycle.

Right Direction/Wrong Track

In spring of 1994, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal (NBC/WSJ) poll has this critical indicator of the public mood at 47 percent wrong track/33 percent right direction. Today, the same poll has this indicator at 62 percent wrong track/26 percent right direction.

Generic Congressional Contest

In the most recent Gallup poll, the Democrats had a sixteen point lead among registered voters (55 percent to 39 percent) in the generic congressional contest, their largest lead on this question since 1982. The Democrats’ average lead in all public polls since the beginning of March is 13 points. Even assuming the generic question overestimates Democratic support by 5 points (the average difference between Gallup’s final poll among registered voters and the actual election result), that still gives the Democrats an average lead of 8 points.

The Democrats are also running large leads among independents in the generic Congressional ballot—generally in the 14–22 point range. As far back as I can get data (1982), the Democrats have never had a lead among independents larger than 4 points in an actual election, a level they managed to achieve in both 1986 and 1990. Indeed, since 1990, they’ve lost independents in every congressional election: by 14 points in 1994; by 4 points in 1998; and by 2 points in 2002. So, even leaving questions of relative partisan turnout aside (and I suspect the Democrats will do better, not worse, in this respect in 2006), the implications of a strong Democratic lead among independents in this year’s election, if it holds, are huge.

Generic congressional data also tend to show substantial shifts away from the GOP among base Republican and swing voters. As recently summarized by Democracy Corps:

The most important shifts are taking place among the world of Republican loyalists, which will have big strategic consequences. It is reflected in the most recent Democracy Corps poll where defection of 2004 Bush voters to the Democrats is twice the level of defection of Kerry voters to the Republicans. Only 31 percent of voters in blue counties (those carried by Kerry) are voting Republican for Congress, but 41 percent of red county voters are supporting the Democratic candidate. The combined data set shows major shifts in the Deep South and rural areas (even before the most recent controversies), blue-collar white men, and the best educated married men with high incomes. . . .

The other big shifts are taking place across the contested groups that form the swing blocs in the electorate. That is bringing big Democratic gains among older (over 50) non-college voters, the vulnerable women, practicing Catholics and the best-educated men. It is as if the entire center of the electorate shifted. . . .

The Democracy Corps quote mentioned the South. Yes, the South. Consider these data from a poll of 4,000 voters in AL, FL, LA, GA, MS, NC, SC, TN and VA, conducted by Insider Advantage for Hasting Wyman’s Southern Political Report. In this poll, Bush has a net negative approval rating in these states (45 percent approval/50 percent disapproval) and Democrats are preferred over the GOP to control Congress by 44 percent to 43 percent.

According to Insider Advantage CEO Matt Towery:

This is disastrous for the Republican Party. Even with legislative and congressional districts in most Southern states being drawn favorably for the GOP, there is a potential for a Republican meltdown at the polls in the mid-term elections this November. . . . When we broke the numbers down, we found the general trend that the larger of the state we surveyed, the more support for a Democratic Congress there was.

Most remarkably, FL’s preference for a Dem-controlled Congress was almost ten points. Wow.

Presidential Job Approval

Again, comparing NBC/Wall Street Journal data, Clinton’s approval rating at this time in 1994 was 55 percent approval/36 percent disapproval. Even at the time of the election, it was still 46 percent/46 percent. Bush’s current rating in the same poll is 37 percent approval/58 percent disapproval—net negative by 21 points.

Congressional Job Approval

The most recent Gallup poll has Congress’ job approval at just 27 percent, the worst Gallup has measured in more than a decade. Right before the 1994 election, Congress’ job approval stood at 23 percent. This indicator is not just bad for the incumbent GOP in general, but there are reasons to believe this is a key indicator of potentially large seat swings. As the Gallup report on these data notes:

During recent midterm election years, low congressional approval ratings have been associated with greater shifts in the partisan composition of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the five elections since 1974 in which Congress’ approval rating was below 40%, the average net change in U.S. House seats from one party to the other was 29. In the three midterm elections in which congressional approval ratings were above 40%, the average change was five seats. . . .

The fact that both congressional and presidential approval ratings are low does not bode well for the Republican Party. The current situation is similar to the political environment in 1978 and 1994, when Democrats controlled both the legislative and executive branches— which were both unpopular. Those elections resulted in net losses for the Democratic Party of 11 and 53 seats, respectively.

Forecasting

Another way of relating mood indicators to seat swing comes from forecasting models of the popular congressional vote and its relation to seat gain and loss. A recent model developed by Alan Abramowitz predicts that, if Bush’s approval stays in –20 net negative territory through the election, the GOP will only get 47.9 percent of the popular vote. Because the predicted relationship between the popular vote split and the House seat split is closer than one might think, Abramowitz finds that such a popular vote share could translate into only 199 GOP-held seats, for a net loss of thirty-three seats. Of course, there are many caveats here and it is possible that the popular vote-House seat distribution relationship has been changing too rapidly to be accurately captured by models. But it does provide another way of illustrating the very good macro environment for the Democrats.

Enthusiasm

There now appears to be an enthusiasm gap among voters in the Democrats’ favor. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, they asked voters to rate their interest in voting from 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest. The result: 53 percent of Democrats rated themselves a “10" but only 43 percent of Republicans. Similarly, 53 percent of those who expressed a preference for a Democrat-controlled Congress rated themselves a 10, but only 38 percent of those who preferred a Republican-controlled Congress.

Turning to the micro story, we find things not looking so rosy for the Democrats. As summarized by Charlie Cook (and it is hard to find a micro-analysis that diverges strongly from his):

Despite national political trends indicating that the GOP is in serious trouble, a race-by-race “micro” analysis suggests that Democrats cannot easily seize control of the House or the Senate this fall.

In the Senate, Democrats need a net gain of six seats. Republicans are truly fortunate to have only one senator retiring, Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Although Democratic Rep.Harold Ford is a talented candidate, he will have his work cut out for him against the winner of a competitive three-way August GOP primary for Frist's seat. The South has become a GOP stronghold. In 2004, Democrats went 0 for 5 in attempting to hold open Senate seats in that region.

Democrats need to win in Tennessee and knock off five GOP incumbents. Only five look truly vulnerable: Conrad Burns of Montana, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Jim Talent of Missouri. . . .

In the House, where Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats, only about three dozen are truly in play today. So far, 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats have announced their retirements. Ten of those Republicans serve in safe GOP districts, where Democrats stand little chance of winning.

Meanwhile, despite their herculean efforts, Democratic recruiters have enticed few first-tier challengers into running this year. Instead, the party has an abundance of second- and third-tier candidates who could never prevail on their own and would need a hurricane-force wind at their backs to cross the finish line first. (Democrats last had a strong political wind propelling them in 1982—and before that in 1974.) So, as with the Senate, Democrats need to win every truly competitive House race.

A hurricane does seem likely to hit the GOP this November. But the micro analysis shows that structural barriers in the House and Senate are protecting the Republican majorities like seawalls, and would likely withstand the surge from a Category 1, 2, or 3 storm. They probably couldn’t withstand a Category 4 or 5, though.

In 1994, the last wave election, Democrats were protected by many of the same barriers, particularly in the House. The tsunami that slammed into their party had looked perhaps 10 stories tall, not enough for the GOP to shift the necessary 40 seats. But the wave ended up being 15 stories high, and Republicans picked up 52 seats (plus two party switchers).

In four out of five elections, the micro analysis proves accurate. But in about one out of five, it doesn’t. Will this year be one of those exceptions?

To make this year one of those exceptions, clearly the macro situation has to become very closely connected to the micro. That is, individual races have to allow, to the maximum extent possible, for the expression of macro sentiments that are leaning so heavily against the incumbent party.

That means, of course, an election that is heavily nationalized. There are some signs that this is already happening. For example, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that, by 37 percent to 20 percent, voters are seeing their vote as a signal of opposition to, not support for, Bush. That compares to 31 percent to 19 percent the other way in October of 2002. That suggests that views about Bush are nationalizing the election in the Democrats’ favor.

Moreover, by 44 percent to 40 percent, voters now say that their representative’s position on national issues will be more important than their representative’s performance in taking care of district problems. That compares to 35 percent national/51 percent district in October of 1994, a “wave” election that was significantly nationalized by the GOP. By this indicator, the Democrats are well on their way—and then some—to a nationalized election.

Iraq

In this election, there is also one issue in particular that has a chance to drive further nationalization of the election, almost by itself: Iraq. I have covered in detail the ever-worsening public sentiments on Iraq. But there is no indication we have hit bottom yet. Indeed, it is possible we are on the verge of a qualitative negative shift in public attitudes toward the war and the administration responsible for it. A March 27 New York Times story, “In an Election Year, a Shift in Public Opinion on the War,” reported:

Interviews with voters, elected officials and candidates around the country suggest a deepening and hardening opposition to the war. Historians and analysts said this might mark a turning point in public perception.

“I’m less optimistic because I see the fatalities every day,” said Angela Kirby, 32, a lawyer from St. Louis who initially supported the war. “And the longer it goes on, the less optimistic I am.”

Here in New Mexico, Dollie Shoun, 67, said she had gone from being an ardent supporter of the war and the president to a fierce critic of both.

“There has been too many deaths, and it is time for them to come back home,” Ms. Shoun said. Speaking of Mr. Bush, she added: “I was very much for him, but I don’t trust him at this point in time.”

Polls have found that support for the war and expectations about its outcome have reached their lowest level since the invasion. A Pew Research Center poll this week found that 66 percent of respondents said the United States was losing ground in preventing a civil war in Iraq, a jump of 18 percent since January. . . .

Richard B. Wirthlin, who was the pollster for President Ronald Reagan, says he sees the beginning of a decisive turn in public opinion against the war. “It is hard for me to imagine any set of circumstances that would lead to an enhancement of the public support that we have seen,” he said. “It is more likely to go down, and the question is how far and how fast.”

Widen the Playing Field

A nationalized election has to have the candidates and money to contest every possible election and therefore catch the wave to the maximum extent possible. It is getting a bit late on the candidate recruitment front, but it is never too late for money. As Cook points out, if the wave is high enough, even second and their tier candidates have a decent chance to win. But they still need money.

As I have argued before, the investment of adequate money in these marginal races is a far wiser use of resources than throwing more and more money at the most obviously competitive races. As lucidly explained by political scientists Donald Green and Jonathan Krasno:

Because of diminishing returns, we know that a large investment in an expensive race will bring few votes, while a small investment in a cheaper race may bring many. Parties shy away from the latter on the grounds that hopeless candidates are hopeless causes. But the math says different. Suppose that we could increase the odds of twenty candidates from 5 to 10 percent for the same cost of helping two candidates with 45 percent chances get to 50 percent. By helping the twenty hapless candidates, we would increase the expected number of victories from 20 x 0.05 = 1 to 20 x 0.10 = 2. By helping the well-heeled candidates, we would increase the expected number of victories from 2 x .45 = 0.90 to 2 x .50 = 1. The first investment portfolio has an expected return of 1 additional victory, while the second one is just one-tenth of an additional victory.

That is a fairly realistic scenario. Seventy challengers in 2004 spent between $100,000 to $500,000, and 19 of them won at least 40 percent of the vote. Boosting their spending by as little as $50,000 or $100,000 would have a discernable effect on their chances, while increasing expenditures by $500,000 in an expensive race would likely have little effect. Parties ignore long shots because viewed individually no single candidate has a particularly good chance of winning. But as a group, long shots are ripe with possibility because of their numbers and because their low spending gives parties a chance to influence their chances. Targeting overlooks many potential winners. . . .

The bottom line is that targeting does not help parties win elections. Instead, it impels them into high-spending races where the value of their contributions is minimal. The narrow group of targeted contests excludes many other elections where they have a distinct, albeit distant, chance of winning. By focusing so sharply on top-tier races, the parties effectively narrow the playing field in congressional elections, limiting their potential gains. . . .

Where’s the Beef?

Finally, there is the ideas issue. Democrats consistently have been running deficits to the Republicans on which party has clear ideas—both in general and on specific issues like Iraq—and on which party knows what they stand for.

In only the most recent manifestation of this pattern, the new Time magazine poll finds just 36 percent saying “Democrats have a clear set of policies for the country,” compared to 56 percent who don’t. Republicans fare better with a 43 percent clear policies/50 percent not clear policies assessment.

Does this matter? Certainly one can go far in terms of nationalizing the election simply by concentrating on the sins of the other side and, in particular, on Bush himself and the need to change course from his direction for the country. This case is argued, with supporting documentation, in the latest Democracy Corps memo, “Defining the 2000 Election.”

And this is an off-year election, less conducive than a presidential contest for laying out an elaborate set of ideas about what Democrats stand for. Moreover, the persistent Republican taunting of the Democrats for having no ideas suggests an interest on the GOP’s part in shifting the conversation away from their considerable problems and onto (hopefully complicated and vulnerable) ideas that Democrats put forward.

But it’s hard to avoid the sense that voters still would like to know what Democrats stand for and that, if Democrats could convey a few clear and simple things they stood for, that would help nationalize the election further to their benefit. “Together, we can do better” doesn’t really do that job.

The Democracy Corps memo does recommend a short set of policy themes that are somewhat more specific than the ringing call to do better:

Block any pay raise for Congress until the incomes of average workers begin to rise.

Replace Bush’s prescription drug plan with a simple one that controls costs.

Raise the minimum wage to $7 an hour.

Close the new tax loophole that encourages companies to move operations overseas.

Implement all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission on Homeland

Security and inspect 100 percent of containers coming into America.

Repeal the cuts in all student loan programs and increase tax breaks for college costs.

Create tax incentives to expand the development of wind, solar, and biofuel technologies.

These are indeed worthy ideas and they do appear to test well. But they’ve got a bit of a laundry list feel and it’s not clear they would go that far toward crystallizing an image of what the Democratic party stands for in voters’ minds. There’s also nothing about Iraq, which seems an odd omission in light of the centrality of that issue.

This suggests Democrats may need to throw a few big ideas into the mix at this point to clarify what they stand for and further nationalize the election in their favor. One idea should be a responsible but definite exit strategy and timetable for ending the Iraq war. Another might be moving toward universal health care.

Sure, big ideas like these, even pitched at a fairly high level of generality, might give the other side something to shoot at. But if would also give the voters some of the answers they’re looking for about what the Democrats stand for. At this point, I’d say the Democrats should err on the side of giving the voters what they want.

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