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Morning Jay: Obama's Job Approval, Generic Ballot, Senate Battles, and More!

6:30 AM, Oct 6, 2010 • By JAY COST
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1. Obama’s Job Approval in Comparative Perspective.  A key factor in the congressional midterm is the standing of the president.  Even though he is not on the ballot, the president is seen as the leader of the government and a political party, and candidates from that party are inevitably viewed in that context.

Right now, Barack Obama is about where Bill Clinton was at this point in 1994, as the following chart (per Gallup) makes clear:

As you can see, Obama is in a slightly better position than Clinton was, but the difference is due entirely to Democratic support, which is stronger for Obama than for Clinton. 

Interestingly, both Obama and Clinton are in a better position than George W. Bush was at this point in 2006.  By early October, Bush was at 37 percent approval, with just 31 percent of independents approving of his job performance.  Republicans “only” lost 30 seats that cycle, or 13 percent of the party’s total House caucus.  In comparison, the Democrats lost 20 percent of the party caucus in 1994.  A loss of 13 percent this cycle would result in about 33 Democratic seats flipping, which would underperform what most people think will happen.

Why the divergence between the two parties?  One factor that I think is relevant is the distribution of each party’s support across the 435 House districts.  President Obama defeated John McCain in 242 congressional districts in 2008 while winning the nationwide popular vote by 7.3 percent.  In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 255 congressional districts while winning the nationwide popular vote by 2.4 percent.  That’s 13 more districts for Bush even though his popular vote margin was 5 percent less.  The Democratic vote is more concentrated – in majority-minority districts and what Michael Barone calls “gentry liberal” districts.  So, Bush’s 37 percent approval in 2006 was better distributed across the 435 congressional districts than Obama’s 46 percent probably will be.  

2. Generic Ballot.  Typically, the ABC News/Washington Post poll can be counted on to give President Obama a better margin than what he gets in the other polls, and the latest installment was no exception. It finds the president at 50 percent approval while he is a shade under 46 percent in the RealClearPolitics average.

Yet the news coming from this poll was not great for Democrats, as it showed the GOP with a 6-point advantage in the generic ballot.  Per Greg Sargent, we learn that independent voters are going for the GOP candidate by a whopping 20-point margin.  If that holds on Election Day, we should see a result bigger than a 6-point GOP lead. 

This speaks to a point I’ve been making the last couple days, one that is well worth repeating: It’s not advisable to get hung up on the overall spread in the generic ballot polls.  In my opinion, there are only two factors that really vary from election to election: how independents break and the strength of each party in the electorate.  I think it is too early to get a clear sense of the latter factor, so my focus for now is on the independents, who so far have given no indication that they’ll be supporting the Democrats.  All of the generic ballot polls that have come out since last Friday – Newsweek, Rasmussen, Gallup, and now ABC News/WaPo – have produced Republican leads among independents larger than what was seen in 1994, this despite the fact that they vary wildly in terms of their final spreads.  If these trends continue, the GOP will take better than 3/5ths of all independents. 

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