Dems' Political Landscape Not Improving

Dems' Political Landscape Not Improving

By Sean Trende - June 18, 2010

Last week, Nancy Pelosi assured analysts that they could “take it to the bank” that the Democrats would hold onto the House.  But after a series of polls that came out on Monday and Tuesday, I would seriously think twice before making a trip to Wachovia.  These polls have only reinforced the view I have held from April of this year that a 50-seat loss or so is the midpoint scenario for Democrats this fall, rather than the 25-40 seat range that most analysts seem to be talking about.

This week's generic ballot tracking poll from Gallup shows Republicans with a 5-point lead, tying their previous best showing from 1994.  The previous two weeks revealed a 6-point lead (the largest in 50 years of Gallup tracking) and a tie.  Three datapoints do not a trend make.  But it is hard to ignore that two of the best three generic ballot showings for Republicans ever in Gallup occurred in the last two weeks.

Rasmussen’s tracking poll showed Republicans opening up a 10-point lead in the generic ballot.  This is significantly larger than the .4 average that RCP currently shows.  But Rasmussen is the only pollster who has imposed a likely voter screen since mid-May.  Other pollsters will add likely voter screens later in the year, and that usually moves the ballot toward Republicans.

Even the polls with better news for Democrats come with asterisks - they were either polls of adults (which typically skew even more heavily toward Democrats compared to the actual electorate than do registered voter polls) or actually showed some improvement for Republicans from their previous iterations.

But the worst news for the Democrats comes from NPR's recent polling. Using a top-notch Republican and a top-notch Democratic polling firm, NPR polled 60 districts represented by Democrats that it considered the most competitive. It isn't a simple generic ballot - it named the actual candidates where incumbents were running. It further broke these down into two "tiers:" Tier I (the 30 Democratic districts it considered "most competitive") and Tier II, (the next most competitive 30 Democratic districts). NPR also polled the ten districts represented by Republicans that it considered the most competitive.

Obama's approval is horrible in both "tiers" of districts represented by Democrats. 53% of voters disapprove of him in the "Tier I" districts, while 56% disapprove in the "Tier II" districts, including a near-majority who strongly disapproves of the President. He's 50-50 in the districts held by Republicans, but Obama averaged a 16.15% victory in these districts in 2008 (the districts polled that are held by Democrats were carried by McCain by a point or so on average in 2008).

Against this landscape, it should not be surprising that NPR finds a Democratic debacle in the making in these districts. Voters prefer, on average, a Republican to the Democrat by 9 points in "Tier I" districts and by a 2 point margin in the "Tier II" districts. Among the most enthusiastic voters, it is even more ominous for Democrats: Republicans lead by 14 points in the 60 districts represented by Democrats. In the districts held by Republicans, by contrast, the Republican lead by 16 points over all, and by 21 points among the most enthusiastic voters.

Three conclusions follow from this. First, very few Republicans seem likely to lose in 2010. Second, if we use a spitball estimate that Republicans will win 2/3 of the competitive Democratic districts, which seems reasonable if the President is averaging a 40% approval rating there and Democrats are behind by 5 points on average in these districts, that nets the Republicans 40 seats right there.

But perhaps most importantly, what does this say about the next 30 or 60 Democratic districts, which were not polled? If the Republicans are winning handily overall in both the seats commonly thought to be highly competitive and in the seats thought to be less competitive, that seems to imply that there are probably a lot of races that aren't on anyone's radar screen that are competitive. I'm not saying that Republicans would win 2/3 of these districts or that they are winning there by ten points, but even a 30% win rate in the next tier of seats gets the Republicans to 50 seats overall. And I'm guessing their win rate would be higher, given how poorly Democrats are faring in their Tier I and Tier II seats.

This is consistent with some of the house polling we've seen this week, with Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin trailing her opponent by twelve points, Travis Childers trailing his opponent (in Republican polling) by eight points, and Larry Kissell polling around 40% against one of his GOP opponents. All three incumbents are clearly in quite a bit of trouble, but the NPR poll classifies Childers as a "Tier I" candidate, Kissell as a "Tier II" candidate, and did not consider Herseth-Sandlin vulnerable.

What is perhaps the worst piece of information for Democrats is that they are not likely to march into November with a message that they will be able to rally voters around. NPR tested Republican and Democratic themes, and found the Republican theme winning in almost every instance. Near-majorities of voters in both tiers of districts represented by Democrats "strongly" believe that Obama's economic policies have done nothing to stop the recession, and have only run up the deficit. The Republican message on spending beats the Democratic message by twelve points, on the economy by about ten points, on health care by about ten points, and on Wall Street reform by about ten points.

In other words, the messages that the Democrats are counting on to get themselves out of their hole are not resonating with the electorate in their battleground districts. In fact, they are losing overall in the districts that NPR polled that are represented by Republicans - which again, Obama won with about 58% of the vote on average in 2008.

The bottom line is that Democrats are on pace for an ugly November. They're increasingly running out of time to change the dynamic, and it looks about as likely that things will get worse as that they will get better. If the elections were held today, the balance of the evidence suggests they would lose 50-60 seats. If you think the political environment will improve for Democrats, you can adjust your expectations accordingly, but if you think they will get worse, you can do the same.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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