Things continue to look bad for the Democrats. Appearing Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs conceded there are enough congressional seats in play to deny the Democrats another turn as the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The outcome, he suggested, hinges on whether or not President Barack Obama can convince enough people that the way he and his party have led the nation over the last two years is still preferable to the way the Republicans would govern.
Gibbs has likely been reading the polls, which on the surface show the contest for control of the House is at least competitive. Looking further down, however, it appears that the Democrats are in a deep hole.
The latest Gallup poll, taken among more than 1,300 randomly selected registered U.S. voters, has the Republicans with a 2 point edge over the Democrats. The GOP’s 46 percent to 44 percent lead is inside the plus or minus 3 point error margin, meaning the race looks like it is a statistical dead heat--but there’s more to it than that.
Polls of registered voters, while useful, measure opinion against status--not behavior. A person who is registered to vote is, it should be obvious, not as certain to turn out and cast a ballot as someone who is a likely voter, either because they say they are almost certain to vote in the next election or because their voting history suggests it is highly probable they will. Probing further into the new data Gallup found that “Republicans continue to hold a significant edge on this potentially important indicator of voter turnout rates” by 13 points--which is down from the average 17-point lead the GOP has held since March but is still part of a consistent trend.
“Each month that Republican parity with the Democrats is maintained reduces the likelihood that the Democrats will move into a substantial lead before November,” the polling firm said. “Prior Gallup analysis has found that the party preferences for Congress seen in the first quarter of a midterm election year generally carry through to Election Day. The only recent example of a major change as late as the summer or fall came in 2002, when Democratic support surged in July and August, but diminished by Election Day.”
The momentum away from the Democrats is almost certainly fueled by a case of buyers’ remorse among Independents who bought a package when they voted for Obama only to find they did not get what they were expecting. But it is still momentum away from the Democrats, not toward the Republicans--a qualitative difference that will be increasingly important in the weeks and months ahead.
In its analysis of the data Gallup concludes that “historical trends suggest that a slight Republican lead on the generic ballot among registered voters--or even a statistical tie--would translate into sizable Republican seat gains in Congress on Election Day, given their typical advantage in voter turnout.” That does not mean, however, that the GOP has sealed the deal with the American electorate. To do that they need to offer, in contrast to what Obama has done, what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used to call “An agenda worth voting for.”