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Morning Jay: Special “Bruce Banner Versus The Incredible Hulk” Edition!

6:30 AM, Oct 26, 2010 • By JAY COST
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I have to admit, I’m of two minds about this midterm election.  There’s Bruce Banner and there is the Incredible Hulk.

Bruce Banner.  Cautious and conservative, Bruce Banner is a firm believer that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  As such, he derives an estimate in this fashion.

Taking the RealClearPolitics average of the generic ballot polls, and dropping the highest (Gallup “traditional”) and lowest (Newsweek) numbers, he gets this:

Allocating the undecided voters proportionally, Bruce Banner gets a two-party vote of 54.5 to 45.5.  That’s a nine-point GOP win, in line with a prediction of a historically high Republican caucus, say 240 seats (which is what I actually did predict last week).

Incredible HulkThe Hulk has problems with this analysis.  It tosses out what has historically been the best estimator of midterm congressional results, the Gallup generic ballot likely model.  This year Gallup is calling it the “traditional” model, but in every midterm before this, it was the only likely voter model.

Just how accurate is it?  This accurate:

Only once in 60 years has the Gallup generic ballot underestimated Democratic strength by a significant amount – by 2% in 2006.  On average, it slightly overestimates the Democrats, by 0.7%. 

Right now, the Gallup traditional model is showing the Democrats at 41% of the vote, and gives the Republicans an advantage of 14 points. That would point to a final result along the lines of 57-43. It’s hard for Hulk to say how many seats that would yield, but it would be way more than 60.  Hulk notes that the Democrats have not sustained a share of the generic vote in the RealClearPolitics average higher than 43% since the early spring.  With the amazingly unpopular Nancy Pelosi as the face of the party, congressional job approval now limited to legislative aides, and more voters than ever suggesting that their own member doesn’t deserve reelection, just how much higher than 43% should we really expect that final number to go?

The circumstantial evidence in favor of this? As Jim Geraghty’s Obi Wan noted yesterday, it’s all around us.  We simply have gotten used to it. Ohio is all but gone for the Democrats, including the swingiest of swing districts in Columbus.  Michigan is a lost cause. So is liberal icon Russ Feingold in Wisconsin.  Pennsylvania looks like it will go maybe +4-6 for Toomey and Corbett. All of these places voted for Obama, and all of them are basically gone. Weak Republican candidates in Colorado and Nevada keep those races tight, but otherwise the toss-ups are: California, Illinois, West Virginia, and Washington. The last Republican presidential candidate to win all four of these? Ronald Reagan in 1984.  

So what are the arguments against this tsunami-to-end-all-tsunami’s? Hulk can think of two.

(a) It’s unprecedented. This is a terribly weak argument. Just because something hasn’t happened is not evidence that it will not happen.

(b) The Dems are amping up enthusiasm. But what’s the source on this? As best Hulk can gauge, most of this talk comes from (i) Democratic operatives, (ii) partisan pollsters and (iii) mainstream media outlets that are clearly partial toward the Democrats. Not compelling to Hulk.

Gallup’s “traditional” model projects turnout at 40% of the vote. What’s the highest it’s been in a midterm since the country gave teenagers the right to vote? Just 39.9%, in 1982. How far beyond 40% can we possibly expect it to go, even if we assume the Democrats solve their enthusiasm problem? 45%? Is that enough to inject an unprecedented level of pro-Republican bias into the Gallup likely voter numbers? Hulk thinks no. 

After all, we’re talking about the marginal voters here – the 25% or so of the country that can be brought into the political process via a high-profile presidential campaign that gets saturation coverage – like 2004 and 2008 – but doesn't get drawn into statewide campaigns. And in most states there are not really interesting or compelling statewide campaigns, anyway. In fact, there are just fifteen states with either toss-up gubernatorial or senatorial contests (according to RealClearPolitics), and a third of them have no more than one genuinely competitive House race. 

So what draws the marginal voters out in a state like Iowa, Michigan, or North Carolina? To Hulk's disappointment, these people don’t read Morning Jay. They don’t watch Fox News Sunday. They have never heard of Politico. Midterms just don’t penetrate their consciousness in the way that really competitive presidential races do, and so this 20% or so stays on the sidelines. That’s the way it’s been for 40 years. Hulk wants to know why he should believe that 2010 will be different.

And if the Democratic turnout problem has been solved, why is Obama visiting deep-blue Rhode Island and California, and encouraging Hispanics to “punish (their) enemies?”  Hulk thinks the collateral damage from this kind of campaign – short term and long term – could be extraordinary. It’s bound to turn Independents off in the short term, and it is sure to ruin any hope of amicability in the 112th Congress. The White House is full of smart people who would only push such a slash-and-burn message if they were at DEFCON 1.

Who’s Right?  My innate sense of caution induces me to side with Bruce Banner, at least for now. At this point, my honest guess is a popular vote victory of 8-9 points with a 60-seat gain in the House, just as I wrote last week.  That being said, I have moments when I start hearing the voice of the Hulk. Yesterday, after Battleground found the "most likely voters" going Republican by +12, Rasmussen by +9, and the Gallup traditional by +14, the Hulk was talking really loudly to me. Next Monday around 5 PM, Gallup will release its final generic ballot numbers. If those numbers are in line with the numbers from this week, I am going to start turning very, very green!

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