By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Last Wednesday, I noted that Republicans are now running even or slightly ahead in the generic vote for Congress in two respected national polls. On Friday, Charlie Cook noted the same results. He pointed out that the NPR survey shows Independents favoring Republicans 38-24 percent and that Republican pollster Glen Bolger says this is the first time Independents have favored Republicans since 2004.
What is going on here? One thing we know is that these results represent more of a decline in the Democrats' numbers than an increase in the Republicans'. Some significant bloc of voters, heavily loaded toward independents, seem to have soured on the Democrats since Barack Obama took office and the 111th Congress went to work. How would this translate into votes in actual elections? Probably in the way we've seen in the special elections that have been held since November: the Senate runoff in Georgia, the two Louisiana House runoffs, three special elections for Virginia House of Delegate seats, the chairmanship of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and the election of a new supervisor in Fairfax's Braddock district. These, by the way, can't be dismissed as purely Southern results; one of the House of Delegates seats and the two Fairfax races are in Northern Virginia, which voted heavily for Barack Obama in November 2008.
The common factor in all these races is that, as compared with November 2008, Democratic turnout is way down, much more than Republican turnout. Democrats are less enthusiastic, less motivated than they were last November. Remember that turnout was robust in November 2008. As Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate reported, 63 percent of eligibles turned out to vote, the highest percentage since 1960. Perhaps not coincidentally, 1960 was the year that Americans elected our first Catholic president, and 78 percent of Catholics voted for him; 2008 was the year Americans elected our first black president, and 95 percent of blacks voted for him. Turnout was up 7.3 percent over 2004, although population rose only 3.8 percent in that period. Turnout seems to have increased by greater percentages among blacks and those under 30. According to the exit poll, blacks amounted to 13 percent of the electorate in 2008, compared to 11 percent in 2004 and 13.5 percent of 2007 population; those under 30 amounted to 18 percent of the electorate in 2008, compared to 17 percent in 2004 and 22 percent of 18-and-over population.
The decline in the Democratic percentage in the generic vote and the sharp drop-off in Democratic turnout in special elections suggest that in future contests in 2009 and 2010 Democrats will not be able to count on the robust turnout that contributed to the Obama and Democratic congressional victory margins in 2008. At least if opinion stays where it is right now. I should add, however, that opinion right now is not where it was in November 2008. I think we are in a period of what I call open field politics. Since 2004, starting around the time of Katrina and increased violence in Iraq, the generic vote and party identification have been considerably more unstable and volatile than they were in the years 1995-2005. That instability worked to Democrats' advantage in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Now it seems to be working against them—I was going to write to Republicans' advantage, but I think what we are seeing is more disillusionment toward Democrats than any positive feeling toward Republicans. In the short run, Republicans can benefit from this. In the longer run, they need to offer voters a better vision for the future, or they risk losing once again if there is a revival of enthusiasm among Democrats and warm feeling toward them among independents.
So to my question—Republicans doing better?—the answer is—no, Democrats doing worse.
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