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Daily Journal

Should We Buy the Generic?

Sep. 28th, 2010
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RALEIGH – With Election Day just five weeks away, there’s been little good news for Democrats. Most prognosticators are still predicting a Republican wave election – giving the party control of the U.S. House, at least a strong minority in the U.S Senate, and a majority of the nation’s governorships.

Here in North Carolina, incumbent Sen. Richard Burr appears to be headed for reelection, while Republicans are poised to make sizable gains in General Assembly races, quite possibly delivering GOP majorities in both legislative chambers. As many as a dozen county commissions also seem up for grabs this year.

Democrats respond to all this conventional wisdom of a large GOP victory in 2010 by pointing out, quite correctly, that in America we don’t vote for parties. We vote for people. The 2010 cycle will be made up of hundreds of individual matchups, face-to-face contests where individual Democrats can still buck the trends.

True. But recent experience shows that pre-election polls do a pretty good job of predicting electoral outcomes, not just for statewide contests but also for district-by-district races. The generic-ballot polling for Congress and state legislature looks pretty scary for the Democrats at the moment.

There are two useful compilations of generic-ballot tests for control of the U.S. Congress. The tracker currently shows the Republicans with an average lead of just over two percentage points. The RealClearPolitics tracker shows a larger GOP edge, at 4.4 points.

These close results already constitute bad news for the Democrats. Generic-ballot polling tends to underestimate GOP victories in midterm district elections, at least modestly. An tied or close result on the generic typically translates into the Republicans picking up seats. In October 1994, for example, Gallup had the two parties tied at 47 percent support. The GOP went on to historic gains.

However, things are actually worse than that for the Dems. In the next few days, Gallup and other pollsters that until now have been surveying all registered voters will start to screen for likely voters the way Battleground, Rasmussen, Survey USA, and other pollsters have already been doing for their surveys. As the new results enter the spreadsheets, expect the average GOP advantage to grow as a result.

We don’t have to take wild guesses at the magnitude of the change. During the past two weeks, the registered-voter polls have tended to find ties or tiny leads in their generic-ballot tests. But the likely voter polls, factoring in the evident GOP advantage in voter intensity, have shown Republican leads ranging from 5 to 10 percentage points.

Focusing back on North Carolina, the left-leaning Public Policy Polling and right-leaning Civitas Institute both ask general-ballot questions for the legislature. PPP’s latest result, from early September, gave Republicans a 49-41 edge for the General Assembly. I assume PPP will put out another generic-ballot finding next week.

As for Civitas, they’ve just released their September result. It’s a doozey – Republicans lead Democrats 44-33.

As you can see by the percentages, a sizable share of likely North Carolina voters didn’t indicate a party preference on Civitas’ generic-ballot test for legislature. Still, if I were a Democratic strategist going into a fall campaign, during which the story of widespread public disaffection with a Democratic president and Democratic Congress dominates the news, I wouldn’t be counting on the undecideds breaking Democratic for legislature and other down-ballot contests.

If GOP candidates really do take such sizable leads into the voting (which actually begins in mid-October, thanks to early voting) their 2010 gains could well be larger than the Republican Revolution election of 1994.

By no means will a strong Republican wave guarantee that GOP candidates will win all of the competitive races. Out of 11 strongly contested districts in the N.C. Senate, 25 in the N.C. House, and four seats in North Carolina’s Congressional delegation, Democrats will win some no matter what the election-eve generic polling shows.

Not enough, though, unless something dramatic – such as an international crisis or natural disaster – changes the dynamics of the cycle.

If you’re a Democrat, you loved 2006 and 2008. You’ll mourn 2010.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation. Want to hear more predictions about the 2010 elections? Make your reservation for Wednesday’s election-preview luncheon in Raleigh, featuring Fox News commentator Michael Barone and Gary Pearce, consultant to former Gov. Jim Hunt.