Democrats' Troubles: The Bigger Picture

Democrats' Troubles: The Bigger Picture

By Sean Trende - October 7, 2010

There's an old Wall Street saying that "even a dead cat will bounce if it falls from a great height," which brokers use to urge caution before investing in a company that seems to be on the rebound from a catastrophic fall.

In hindsight, the polling bounce we've seen for the Democrats in recent weeks will be viewed in that vein. The Democrats' fortunes in Senate races in California, Washington and Delaware have improved somewhat. Likewise, we've seen campaign polls showing Democrats like Chris Carney and Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin leading their GOP opponents, and independent polls showing Rick Boucher and Ben Chandler ahead.

But these developments obscure the bigger picture: overall, polling shows the Democrats in jeopardy of losing both chambers, and perhaps losing historic numbers of seats in the House.

Let's look first at the Senate. Any analysis must begin with the fact that this was never supposed to be a year where Republicans made massive gains, much less picked up the eleven seats that they needed to take the Senate (that number is now ten after Scott Brown's shocking win in Massachusetts in January). Democrats entered this cycle needing to protect only four seats in states in states that tilt Republican as measured by the Partisan Voting Index (PVI)

But consider the following table, which lays out the latest RealClearPolitics poll averages for each Democratic Senate incumbent, and the PVI of their state. When dealing with incumbents, it is much more important to look at the incumbents' number than the challengers' number, since undecideds usually break against the incumbent:

Note that the one Democratic incumbent in a Republican-leaning state is mired at 35 percent. The rest of the incumbents are in Democratic-leaning states, and should start to look safe if we're really seeing a meaningful Democratic bounce. Yet three of the four have atrocious numbers (Ron Wyden in Oregon does not have a well-funded challenger). It isn't until we get to D+9 states - in other words, deep blue states that gave President Obama over 60 percent of the vote in 2008 - that we begin to see Democratic incumbents polling well.

So even if Democratic odds are truly improving in California and Washington, that's exactly what we'd expect to happen given the Democratic make up of the electorate in those states. Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents coming home in the deepest blue states isn't surprising.

But the fact that Democratic incumbents in slightly less blue states (D+5-7) are no longer dead Senators walking is hardly indicative of a broad-based Democratic resurgence.

Now let's look at the Democrats' open seats by PVI:

We see the same trend. Democrats are trailing badly in three of the four seats that are not solidly Democratic. The one Republican-leaning state that is close, West Virginia, is a quirky state that is now heavily Republican at the Presidential level, but still very Democratic at the state level. Democrats also recruited a highly popular Governor to run.

Once again, we see that until you get into pretty heavily Democratic states like Connecticut and Delaware, the picture for the Democrats is ugly.

It gets even worse when we look at the House. If the playing field for the Republicans going into this year's Senate elections was stacked against further Republican gains, the opposite is true in the House. In the House, 115 Democrats occupy seats that are D+5 or better for Republicans, which is roughly the cutoff in the Senate between a race that leans at least somewhat Republican and a race that starts to look Democratic (incidentally, I posited that D+5 could be the rough cutoff point for competitive races in the House last November).

Unsurprisingly, available polling on House races suggests that the Democrats in these districts are largely in deep trouble. I've calculated the averages of all non-campaign polls for Democratic House incumbents released in the last 30 days (the table is lengthy; it is appended at the end of the article). Of the 52 Democratic incumbents polled, 42 are under 50 percent, 24 are under 45 percent, and 13 are under 40 percent.

The 27 Democratic incumbents polled in Republican-leaning districts average a mere 42 percent of the vote. Only 3 of these Democrats are above 50 percent. Bear in mind that there are an additional 46 Democrats in Republican-leaning districts who were not polled (or whose seats are open).

The Democrats in swing districts (D+1 through D+5) fare little better, averaging 44 percent of the vote. Another 28 haven't been polled. As is the case with the Senate, Democrats don't start posting consistently solid numbers until they hit roughly the D+8 mark.

These numbers are consistent with the recent Gallup generic ballot polling, which suggests that Republicans are presently looking at historic gains of well over 60 seats. There may be a few scattered hopeful signs here and there for the Democrats 26 days out. But one should not confuse "slightly less bad" signs with "good" signs. The polls that we've seen showing some Democrats doing better should be cold comfort for a party still marching toward a very bad midterm election.

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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