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Morning Jay

Caution on the generic ballot, Palin's presidential plans, Obamacare drags down the Dems, and more...

6:30 AM, Sep 2, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Welcome. This is a regular feature I'll be offering every weekday, first thing in the morning. Basically, what I'll do is flag the most notable stories of the 2010 midterm campaign, and provide my two cents on what's really happening. 

Morning Jay

President Barack Obama discusses health care legislation in a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress.

(1) Generic ballot.  Still making the rounds a few days after publication is Gallup's out-sized Republican lead on the generic ballot: 10 points, 51-41. Wowsa. That would translate into a 55-45 Republican victory in the two-party vote.  That's larger than 1994.  Heck, that's larger than 1946.  That's 1928 territory, which was back when the GOP won every congressional district in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, and even San Francisco.  And that's GOP +10 among registered voters. Over at Pollster, Harry Enten argues, "the Republican margin on the likely voter model could be 5-10% greater than on the registered voter model."  

I think the appropriate posture here is one of caution.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Gallup poll is bouncy.  Obvious question: Just recently, the ballot had a Democratic lead of 6 points, so has enough happened to justify a 16-point shift so quickly?  Similarly, President Obama has gone from -11 to +2 in his net job approval in the last two weeks. This is a bounce that nobody else has found. It's appropriate not to get hung up on the day-to-day or even week-to-week changes in the Gallup poll.

The generic ballot has other issues. My sense of it is that when one party has a lead in the real world, the generic ballot will often overstate that lead in the poll.  So, the Dems win by 13 points in 1958, but the generic ballot that fall has them winning by 23.  They win by 17 in 1974, but the generic ballot has them winning by 27.  

Another point. To get a good sense of what these results mean, we need a decent historical trendline.  We don't really have that here. It's not coincidental that this is the first time the generic ballot has the GOP up by this much. It's only recently that the Republicans have become competitive in the race to control the House. From 1932 to 1994, the Democrats held the House all but twice by splitting Northern districts and winning 70-90 percent of Southern districts.  Since 1994, the GOP has remained competitive in the North, but now roughly splits Southern districts.  That's why a year like 2010 could produce a Republican House majority, but the GOP couldn't even take the House in 1972 when Richard Nixon won 61 percent of the vote.  The South was just off the table.

So, the fact that the GOP lead of +10 being "unprecedented" doesn't mean exactly what we might want to think it means. It's as much a testament to Republican non-competitiveness from 1954-94 as much as Democratic doldrums in 2010.  In other words, the shape of the congressional elections has fundamentally shifted in the last 20 years.  So, I wouldn't take a 10-point lead literally. I'd say a 10-point lead points to a solid House majority for Republicans, but these numbers should be read cautiously.

What's more noteworthy than GOP +10 on the generic ballot is that Republicans in Congress now outpoll Democrats on seven of nine issues, according to Gallup.  What's amazing about this is that Gallup tested "Republicans in Congress" versus "Democrats in Congress" and gave voters the potential response of "No Difference." And even with this, the GOP is at or above 50 percent on terrorism, immigration, and federal spending.  And on the economy, the GOP hits 49 percent.  That's amazing because "Republicans in Congress" has long been a surefire way to generate terrible GOP polling numbers. Not anymore, apparently.  Two theories as to why: (a) Republican candidates nationwide are rebranding the party's congressional image; (b) Democrats have really shot themselves in the foot. My money is on (b) with a twist of (a).

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