Democracy Corps Poll Outlines Path to Democratic House
In 2010, Republicans recaptured a House majority by maximizing their gains in the districts where Barack Obama was weakest. Now, some key Democratic thinkers believe their party could threaten the Republican majority mostly by maximizing their gains in the districts where the president remains strongest.
While most analysts still believe that Democrats face long odds of recapturing the House of Representatives in November, pollster Stanley B. Greenberg and strategist James Carville are now arguing that President Obama's improving performance in swing House districts could trigger a Democratic wave that carries the party within reach of a majority.
In a new memo released Monday, the two men wrote that their latest Democracy Corps survey of 54 Republican-held House seats "shows Republicans in serious and worsening trouble." On an array of measures, they argue, GOP incumbents now face numbers nearly as ominous as Republican members did before the 2006 and 2008 Democratic gains and Democrats did before the GOP landslide in 2010. By raising the possibility of big House gains, Carville and Greenberg are staking out a more optimistic position than most Democrats have taken so far in this cycle.
In an interview, Greenberg acknowledged that his results do not yet point to losses for the GOP at the magnitude of those three consecutive wave elections. But, he maintained, the trajectory of opinion, particularly in seats Obama carried, raises that possibility. "Right now, these numbers suggest a lot of vulnerability and people losing seats, but it doesn't suggest losing at the scale of 2010, 2008 or 2006--yet," he said. "But because the Republican numbers are slipping, and because the congressional issues have not yet crystallized" that possibility could develop.
Republicans, not surprisingly, remain dubious, arguing that redistricting, financial advantages for their candidates, and continued dissatisfaction over the economy will blunt any Democratic gains. "The problem for Democrats really comes down to that they can't talk about the most important issue in the country," says Paul Lindsay, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Greenberg says the possibility of big Democratic gains are rooted in two overriding factors: Obama's improving position in many of the most vulnerable Republican seats, and the opportunity for the president and other Democrats to nationalize the races around the budget drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that House Republicans have twice passed.
So far, Greenberg says, the most important factor expanding opportunity for House Democrats is Obama's improving position against Mitt Romney. "Far and away it's the presidential race that is changing the dynamics here and moving the numbers," he said.
In its poll, the Democracy Corps surveyed voters in 54 House districts, equally divided into tiers of 27 seats that the group rated as the top and secondary Democratic opportunities. In 2008, Obama carried 25 of the 27 seats the group rated as the top Democratic targets and 10 of the 27 it placed in the second tier. The Democracy Corps survey (conducted from July 21-26) found Obama leading Romney by 52 percent to 44 percent in the top tier of Democratic targets and trailing by 48 percent to 44 percent in the second tier. Overall in all 54 districts, Obama led Romney 48 percent to 46 percent, which nearly equals his four percentage point overall 2008 margin in these seats, the group reports.
This is the first Battleground poll conducted entirely within the new district lines; the last one conducted in April questioned respondents within the 2010 district lines. To ensure as comparable a sample as possible, the pollsters adjusted their April results to reflect only districts that remained mostly untouched under the new lines.
Obama's improving position looms so large because House elections are now so heavily influenced by attitudes toward the president. In 2004, exit polls showed that 88 percent of voters who backed George W. Bush also voted Republican in House elections and 89 percent who voted for John Kerry voted Democratic. In 2008, 90 percent of Obama voters backed House Democrats and 86 percent of John McCain voters also pulled the lever for House Republicans. Even without Obama on the ballot, the relationship held in 2010: according to the exit polls, 85 per cent of voters who approved of Obama's performance voted Democratic for the House, while 84 percent of disapprovers voted Republican.
In these competitive districts, the Democracy Corps poll finds the races swept along by those same currents: it found that 89 percent of Obama voters intend to vote Democratic for the House, while 93 percent of Romney voters say they plan to vote Republican. Given the intensity of that correlation, Greenberg says it wouldn't be surprising for Democrats to win two-thirds of the 27 top-tier targets in the survey, many of them affluent suburban seats that were carried by Obama in 2008. That would be comparable to the GOP performance in 2010, when it won fully three-fourths of the 48 House seats held by Democrats in districts that voted for McCain two years earlier. (Another 22 of the GOP pick-ups that year came in districts where Obama won narrowly in 2008, with 55 percent of the vote or less.)
But those gains alone wouldn't be enough to provide Democrats the 25 seats they need to regain a House majority -- especially since Republicans appear positioned to capture at least some additional seats still held by Democrats in districts that voted for McCain. After redistricting, Democrats hold 14 such seats, and several of them -- such as four Democratic-held seats in North Carolina and one each in Oklahoma and Arkansas -- are clearly at risk this time.
That means to regain control Democrats will almost certainly have to win some of the "Tier Two" targets -- whether won by Obama or McCain in 2008. And there, as the Democracy Corps poll shows, the terrain remains rockier for the party. In the survey, not only does Romney still lead Obama in those 27 seats, but Republicans maintained a nine percentage point overall lead on the generic ballot. Greenberg says the key to overcoming that advantage will be to intensify the focus on the Ryan budget, which converted Medicare into a premium support, or voucher, system while maintaining large tax cuts. "You cannot look at this data without realizing they have increased vulnerability with the Ryan budget," he argues.
Lindsay argues that Greenberg is overestimating the capacity of the Medicare issue to neutralize the other GOP advantages in those districts. "How many times have we heard them say this?" he said. "Of course when it's phrased [their] way it moves numbers, but it also moves numbers when we say a Democrat who voted for Obamacare voted for $500 billion in Medicare cuts. I'd just argue there's no real [Medicare] advantage on either side."
As these cross-currents intersect, the Democracy Corps poll raises the prospect of a House that is even more polarized after the election -- with virtually all Democrats representing seats that also preferred Obama and nearly all Republicans representing constituencies that rejected him for Romney. Regardless of who wins the White House, that's a formula for a deepening of the quasi-parliamentary patterns that have produced the highest level of congressional party-line voting since the late 19th century -- and unstinting partisan conflict on almost all major issues.