At a policy luncheon last week hosted by the Hoover Institution, professors David Brady and Douglas Rivers presented their findings on the mood of the electorate and, in particular, the mood of independents going into the midterm election. The way they see it, the results in November will not be some massive historical shift from Democrats to Republicans, but rather something smaller—and having less to do with voters' opinions of President Obama than whether or not they consider their elected representative to be out of step with their beliefs and values. All told, Brady and Rivers expect Republicans to gain 40 seats net, with 3 seats switching from Republican to Democrat.
The Brady/Rivers polling process differs from most polls in that it doesn't take an instant pulse but rather tracks a set of respondents over time. (Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, none of this has been made available online yet.) Party IDs have been monitored, questions on cap and trade, the economic stimulus, and health care reform have been posed, and answers given. Over time, some of the answers changed. Brady and Rivers are skeptical about other more popular polling methods, especially the accuracy of asking 1,000 respondents "across the country" their opinions. Which parts of the country, which parts of the state, indeed which counties and cities all matter.
Herewith, some of their findings:
*Between 1952 and 2004, the party identification gap narrowed. Whereas Democrats enjoyed a huge advantage early on (in the range of 20 points), they now lead Republicans by less than 8 points—a curiosity considering Republicans have won more presidential elections during this time period than Democrats. In addition, the decline in Democratic party identification has not directly translated into a clear Republican edge. Instead, the number of independents has grown.
*Between 2008 and 2010, the number of respondents who described Barack Obama as "inspiring" declined by 5 to 6 points. (He never scored terribly well on the descriptive "patriotic." Even lower were the number of people who deemed him "religious." Rivers joked that at the very least, the people who thought Obama was a Muslim probably didn't think he was a devout Muslim.)
*On the foreign policy front, the president is again confronted with a problem since more Republicans are supportive of his efforts in Afghanistan than his Democratic base (which calls to mind his remark in the upcoming Woodward book about not wanting to lose the entire party).
*The assessment that the GOP will win 40 seats net is similar to the Democrats' gain of 26 House seats in 1982. Obama's popularity is within the range of Bill Clinton's and Ronald Reagan's before their first midterms.
*Rivers says this upcoming election is not a referendum on Barack Obama, that it's more than just an anti-Obama vote. It has more to do with whether or not a candidate is out of step with his district. And if he is out of step, the results will be disastrous.
Needless to say, the journalists in attendance had their questions—some seeming rather skeptical about the Brady/Rivers polling methodology. And the two professors defended their arguments vigorously, standing their ground, and insisting a GOP tsunami is not on the horizon.
Just 40 seats? It will be interesting to see how close to the mark Brady and Rivers will be come November 2.