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September 15, 2008

Can Republicans Win Back Congress?

That startling question was injected into some Beltway denizens' minds this weekend as a USA Today/Gallup poll late last week showed Republicans actually leading the generic Congressional ballot among likely voters. The answer, even top Republicans admit, is almost definitely no.

A generic ballot test asks respondents whether they would vote for "the Democratic Party's candidate" or "the Republican Party's candidate" without naming names. The question is seen as a good measure of an atmosphere in which more votes are cast for a party instead of a candidate than at the presidential level, given that congressional candidates are generally less well known.

The grim atmosphere Republicans faced in 2006, when the party trailed by as many as 20 points on generic ballot tests in November, looked set to repeat itself this time around. Democrats led generic ballot tests earlier this summer by as many as 15 points, in a June Pew study, and 18 points, in a July poll commissioned by the Associated Press.

Without doubt, the gap has narrowed. Recent polls have showed Democrats leading in the mid- to upper-single digits, a significant margin but nowhere near the double digit lead the party enjoyed two years ago. Without the USA Today/Gallup results, the latest RCP Generic Ballot Average shows Democrats leading by 6 points. Factor in what looks like the outlier poll and Democrats still lead by 4.2 points.

Those Republican gains come from an increase in the number of voters identifying themselves as members of the GOP to begin with, leading to greater representation in survey samples. In essence, Republicans are happy to be Republicans again, and that excitement is trickling into down-ballot races (A phenomenon not unnoticed by Republican leaders in Washington, as I wrote last week).

Republicans shouldn't be too thrilled based on one poll, though. The USA Today/Gallup poll shows Republicans with a lead only among likely voters. That's a subsample of 823 respondents in the latest survey, a sample with a margin of error of +/- 3.4%. The poll also showed registered voters favoring Democrats by a 48%-45% margin. Registered voters made up a subsample of 959 respondents, which has a margin of error of +/- 3.2%.

Simply put, that means those registered to vote who didn't make it through the likely voter screens preferred Democrats by an 85%-15% margin. In a presidential election year with record turnout and voter interest, as well as a Democratic Party more focused on turnout operations than they have been in the past, pollsters have pointed out that their voter turnout models are being constantly reworked.

Democrats picked up 31 seats in 2006 with an 11.5-point lead in generic ballot tests, and the party actually won 53.6% of the general election vote, a 7-point margin.

Could Republicans take back the House? Hypothetically, sure, but even with their improved outlook in generic ballot tests, the party is still in no position to pick up 19 seats it would need to reach a 218-vote majority. Surveying individual races, plus factoring in a flagging economy, an unpopular war and a Republican in the White House, that looks incredibly unlikely.