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What the Generic Ballot Tells Us About a GOP Wave

What the Generic Ballot Tells Us About a GOP Wave

By Sean Trende - September 4, 2014

Last week, I considered the question of whether a Republican wave was forthcoming in 2014, using Senate races as the metric.  One of the more common objections to the idea of a Republican wave was the Democrats’ standing in the generic ballot.  As of today, Democrats lead by 0.5 percent.  This contrasts with this point in 2010, when Republicans led by 5.3 points.

In order to understand why I don’t find this all that interesting, it is worth fleshing out my meta-view of this election.  I can emphatically say: It's not certain that a big Republican wave is coming. Rather, the data we have are currently consistent with a wide range of potential outcomes, with a very good Republican year being the most likely result. 

This is because our recent elections suggest that when a party holds the presidency, its candidates have a very difficult time winning over the votes of individuals who disapprove of the job that that president is doing. That could absolutely change in this election, but I believe the burden is on people who believe this time will be different.

As of today, Democratic candidates aren’t winning over the votes of people who disapprove of President Obama.  In fact, congressional Democrats are running about how we would expect them to run, given Obama’s approval rating. But because these candidates are running roughly equal with the president's numbers, any undecided voters most likely disapprove of the job the president is doing. I doubt if these are strong disapprovers, but I think it is a reasonable assumption that they are not favorably inclined toward Obama.

What will happen with these voters?  We don’t know! But again, our experience in recent elections suggests that the president’s party will have a difficult time winning them over.  Perhaps dislike of Republicans will make the job easier for Democrats, although we heard this exact same argument repeatedly in 2010. We should have at least some skepticism here.  A more likely scenario is that these voters will opt to stay home, which for our purposes is the same as them breaking 50-50. But midterm electorates are pretty stable; while this is hardly an impossible outcome, it doesn’t seem extremely likely, either.

With that framework in mind, let’s look at three important points regarding the generic ballot.

1) The current polls probably understate Republican strength.

If we look at the various polls in the RCP Average, we see the Republican margin (or lack thereof) as: 5, 4, 1, -1, -5 and -7 points.  That’s quite a variety of outcomes, but ends up with an average of a 0.5 point Democratic lead.

But as Nate Silver has found, registered-voter polls tend to favor Democrats by about six points, net.  This tendency may have disappeared in presidential years, but we don’t have evidence that it has disappeared in midterm elections (though Democrats are certainly trying to make this happen).

If we adjust registered-voters polls to allow an apples-to-apples comparison, the Republicans leads are: 11, 4, 1, 0, -1, and -2.  That’s a much more “normal” distribution of poll outcomes, and gives the Republicans a two-point lead. Even if we toss the McClatchy poll as an outlier, we would still observe a half-point Republican edge.

2) Democrats are winning over the voters who approve of Obama, and not much more.

It is significant, however, that Democrats are presently receiving 42.5 percent of the vote.  This is fully consistent with my suggestion that elections continue to function as referenda on the party in power, as Obama’s job approval is presently 42 percent.  This is what we saw in 2010; the president’s job approval in the exit polls was 44 percent, and Democratic House candidates won 44.9 percent of the vote.

3) The real difference between now and 2010 is that there are more undecideds.

As of today, Democrats lead Republicans in the generic ballot, 42.5 percent to 42 percent.  Republicans had a healthy lead at this point in 2010: 47 percent to 41.7 percent.

But look closely. The difference is not found in a stronger Democratic vote at the expense of Republican votes.  It is found in a greater pool of undecided at the expense of Republicans. Democrats aren’t doing better.  Republicans are doing worse.

Again, there are multiple conclusions one can draw from this. One could say that disgust with the Republican Party is creating undecided voters, who will eventually stay home or vote Democratic.

It’s also, however, consistent with a story that this election is not as high-interest as 2010, and that undecided voters have not yet engaged fully with the process.  When they do engage, Obama’s unpopularity will make it unlikely that they will vote Democratic.

In fact, this is roughly what we saw in 2010. If you look at the chart linked to above, Republicans and Democrats were neck-and-neck from about November 2009 through July 2010.  During the peak of the Obamacare battle, Republicans led slightly, but as things cooled down, we entered a protracted period where Republicans and Democrats both received between 42 and 43 percent of the vote.  Then, in July, Republicans began to open up a lead, capturing most of the undecided voters.

Will the same thing happen this year? Again, we can’t know right now. Indeed, there is a plausible story for why it won’t happen.  But there’s also a very plausible story for why it will happen; the current polling just isn’t inconsistent with a GOP wave.  If we get past, say, early October and the break hasn’t occurred, we will start to more reasonably expect that no break will be forthcoming.  For now, we just have to wait and see.

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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