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NYT Analyst: Is GOP Generic Ballot Lead the New Normal?

12:50 PM, Aug 31, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Nate Silver, the left-leaning statistician recently hired by the New York Times after running his own polling blog for several years, is warning Democrats not to dismiss the GOP generic ballot lead as a mere outlier.

NYT Analyst: Is GOP Generic Ballot Lead the New Normal?

Gallup released a poll yesterday, using the president's favorite word, "unprecedented," to describe the GOP's 10-point lead on the generic ballot question. It's the first time the Republican Party has achieved such a margin in the 70 years Gallup has been polling the question, and puts them 10 points ahead of their standing on the eve of the '94 wave election.

Silver had bad news for liberals looking to the Newsweek poll, which found the parties tied, for solace:

The poll is probably an outlier of sorts, by which I mean that if you were to take the exact same survey  and put it into the field again — but interview 1,450 different registered voters, instead of the ones Gallup surveyed — you would most likely not find the G.O.P. with a 10-point advantage. This week’s generic ballot survey by Rasmussen Reports actually bounced back toward the Democrats somewhat (although still showing them with a 6-point deficit);polling averages have them trailing by around 5 points instead; and there was no specific news event last week that would have warranted such a large shift in voter preferences.

Still, even if the poll is an outlier, that doesn’t mean it should simply be dismissed. Instead, the question is: an outlier relative to what? If the Democrats’ true deficit on the generic ballot were 5 points, it would not be all that unusual to have a poll now and then that showed them trailing by 10 points instead, nor would it be so strange for a couple of polls to show the race about tied. Indeed, that seems to be about where the generic ballot sits now. No non-Internet survey has shown the Democrats with a lead larger than 1 point on the generic ballot for over a month now, whereas their worst results of late seem to put them in the range of 10 points to 11 points behind.

Democrats have been trying to lay the blame for this spectacular fall from grace solely at the feet of the economic situation, ignoring effects of the centerpiece of Obama's first two years in office — health care reform.  A Politico piece on Democratic fears of losing the House completely ignored health care reform in favor of storylines like the Ground Zero Mosque. But even the energetic Obamacare shills at HCAN feel it's enough of a negative to urge candidates and activist not to even mention it. 

Jay Cost offers an "It's the Obamacare, stupid" argument:

Partisans on both sides tell themselves stories about why they're up, why they're down, and why the other side is where it is. These stories usually contain at least a grain of truth, but they also help encourage ideologues in the face of an impending rejection by the electorate. Democrats ignored the political problem of health care in the fall and winter - arguing that Martha Coakley and Creigh Deeds were bad candidates, that voters had been turned off by the health care bill because of the process, and that they would come around once the many benefits kicked in. Now, they're pointing to the economy as the only significant reason why the party is in trouble.

It would be difficult for any strong partisan to admit that such an accomplishment was sodeeply unpopular. Yet the polling is pretty unequivocal on the relationship between the Democrats' fortunes and the health care bill. It was during the health care debate that the essential building block of the Democratic majority - Independent voters - began to crumble. It was evident in the generic ballot. It was evident in the President's job approval numbers. It was evident in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Vulnerable Democrats seem to understand this better than the talking-points authors in Washington. North Virginian Rep. Gerry Connolly, head of the freshman House class of '08, conceded today that health care is a problem:

"I think that the focus of the public, with stubborn unemployment remaining so high, was on the growing the economy and creating jobs," Connolly said Tuesday during an appearance on TBD TV in metropolitan Washington. "And anything else seemed like a distraction."

It has already proven dangerous for Democrats to underestimate the displeasure with government's processes and excesses (the very ones Obama was supposed to fix) created by the passage of Obamacare, especially among independent voters. The dismal economy will certainly be a large part of the losses they incur, but ignoring the new level of disgust Obamacare has wrought will only serve to bolster the GOP's newfound edge.

The new normal is not merely an accident of the economy, and the election is not merely an anti-incumbent fervor that happens to be afflicting Democrats. They're paying a price for their actions, not just their circumstances.

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