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Is the Generic Ballot Underestimating the Democrats?

Probably not...

1:40 PM, Sep 22, 2010 • By JAY COST
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The problem with this is that in the AAF polls, specific Republican candidates are doing better than generic ones, too.  The generic Republican pulls in on average 39 percent of the vote. Actual Republicans pull in 45 percent.  Meanwhile, the generic Democrat hauls 33 percent while the real ones get 44 percent on average.  So, the numbers for both sides improve when AAF moves from generic to real.  The R-D spread decreases because the Democrats improve slightly more on average than Republicans.

What accounts for the fact that the Democrats do slightly better than Republicans?  It might be Silver’s suggestion that the Democrats are successfully localizing the election. 

But I doubt it. 

Campaigns spin about how they are going to “localize” or “nationalize” elections, but the reality is that parties and candidates have a very limited role in setting the agenda.  Instead, the competitive nature of the campaign forces candidates to talk about what the voters want to talk about, just as the competition between Wal-Mart and Target forces both stores to stock what their customers actually want.  If voters want to talk about national issues, then the campaign will be about national issues.  So, I don’t think Silver's explanation cuts it. 

A much more likely account is that AAF polled incumbent-held districts where the Democratic incumbent has substantially better name recognition than his/her challenger.  After all, these AAF polls were taken in mid-August when challengers were still essentially unknown.  In some of these districts, primaries hadn't even been held, and GOP challengers had not yet been determined!  

I think what probably happened is that soft Democratic leaners answered “Depends” to the generic ballot question for whatever reason, then gave support to the incumbent Democrat whose name they recognized.  Meanwhile, some Republican leaners and pure independents (who will likely end up voting Republican nationwide this year), answered “Depends” as well, but they did not recognize the name of the GOP candidate, so they were undecided when the choice came down to two actual people. 

In support of this proposition, consider the following: 7 of the 31 districts AAF polled show a larger break toward the specific Republican candidate; in 5 of those 7, the Republican running has already run for office before, and thus has better name recognition.  The other two that break toward the GOP are PA-3 and CO-4, districts where two freshmen Democrats announced late-stage, high-profile support of the health care bill.

This explanation has the added virtue of resolving the tension that Silver’s analysis leaves behind: Historically speaking, the generic ballot has favored Democrats, sometimes by overwhelming margins, yet this year it is suddenly undercounting the Democratic strength. The alternative account I offer – wherein methodology and differences in name recognition explains the peculiarities of the AAF polling – does not require us to stipulate a historic change in the tilt of the generic ballot.

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