Among Competitive Seats, Democrats Are at a Disadvantage

Things are looking bad for Democrats heading into November's midterm elections, but just how bad are they on the whole? According to a new poll from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, Democratic incumbents in competitive districts trail their Republican challengers by five percentage points.

Greenberg polled the 60 most competitive Democratic-held House districts and the 10 most competitive Republican-held districts, surveying 1,200 likely voters combined in both statistical mega-districts, June 7-10 for NPR. Democrats trailed 42%-47% in Democratic-held districts, in aggregated results. They trailed 37%-53% in the 10 Republican-held districts.

Greenberg didn't separate results district-by-district in their findings, and 1,200 likely voters isn't a large enough sample to tell whether every Democrat trails anyway. Some could be ahead.

It's not as bad a result as it could be. A five-percentage-point deficit isn't all that bad, given the doom and gloom of conventional wisdom surrounding November's elections. The Cook Political Report has predicted a net loss of 25 House seats for Democrats; that's the current expectation.

There's a lot of data in Greenberg's report--it's the most detailed public (and, likely, private) analysis of competitive House districts in the 2010 cycle to date, since Greenberg conducted a similar poll last year--enough both to give Democrats a silver lining and Republicans a sense of renewed optimism. So here's a breakdown of what the poll means for each side.

Good news for Republicans:

  • The enthusiasm gap: 62% of Republicans in Democratic districts say they are "very enthusiastic" about voting in the midterms, vs. 37% of Democrats in those districts who say the same. A good sign for GOP turnout this fall.
  • Obama's approval: The president polls badly in competitive Democratic-held seats. On average, he polls at 40%. In the most competitive seats, 53% disapprove; in the next-most competitive seats, 56% disapprove. Republicans can run against Obama in those districts, and Democrats will have to run away from the president. There's not much Obama himself can do to help them.
  • Obama's economic policies poll badly: 59% say Obama ran up a record deficit with his economic policies, while only 35% say his policies helped avert a crisis and laid a foundation for job growth, in the most competitive Democratic districts. Similar numbers were found in the next tier of Democratic seats. Obviously, a crisis was not averted, so this may not say as much about Obama as it seems to, and it's questionable how much people blame Obama for the deficits he incurred and the crisis that unfolded. But Republicans will likely run on this very point, and it seems to be resonating. Interestingly enough, President George W. Bush actually beats Obama by over 10 percentage points on responsible handling of the economy. [Actually, the opposite is the case. I misread a section of the results: Bush is held more responsible for problems with the economy. Apologies for this error and subsequent gross misrepresentation of Obama vs. Bush in this poll.]
  • Republicans are poised to hold onto their seats: across the board, numbers look much better for Republicans in competitive Republican-held seats. They lead those 10 races 53%-37%, on average.

And now, the good news for Democrats:

  • Everyone loves financial reform: Financial reform is immensely popular in competitive districts, according to Greenberg. In the most competitive Democratic seats, 50% support the "bill that would create new rules for banks and other financial institutions" under consideration in Congress, while only 27% oppose it. Even in Republican-held districts, 57% support it and 22% oppose it. Coincidentally, financial reform will be one of the Democrats' last big accomplishments heading into election season, it will likely be fresher in voters' minds than health care, and it will give Democrats something solid to run on in these competitive races.
  • Anti-incumbent sentiment isn't translating: When asked if they want to reelect their Democratic representative or "probably someone else," voters in the most competitive Democratic-incumbent-held districts say 44%-31% that they want someone else. But across the board, this sentiment isn't translating, as in some cases Democrats are retiring and, perhaps, in some cases "probably someone else" sounds better this far from Election Day than any specific Republican options. Much is being made of anti-incumbent sentiment, but for those reasons it may not translate into as many GOP victories as some expect.
  • Obstruction isn't all that popular: At least not in Republican districts. In those 10 races, 49% say they'll vote for a Republican because the Democratic Congress is "business as usual" and offers "tax and spend" policies, but 44% say they'll vote for a Democrat because he/she will work with President Obama. A five-percentage point difference is not  a huge advantage for pure obstructionism and opposition to the Democratic Congress in Republican districts.