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Exploring the House Generic Ballot

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The Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol done is silhouetted by the rising sun on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 24, 2013.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A new Quinnipiac University poll out Wednesday provides an early look at the battle for control of the House of Representatives in 2014, and while Democrats are slightly ahead at this juncture, a lead on the generic ballot 18 months before Election Day hardly assures the party of breaking the historical trend of the president's party losing seats during the 6-year midterm elections.

First, the toplines: Registered voters surveyed by Quinnipiac favor the Democratic candidate over the Republican, 41 percent to 37 percent, with 19 percent of voters undecided. Democrats' four-point lead is half their advantage a month ago, when the generic Democrat led the generic Republican, 43 percent to 35 percent.

There's some evidence the generic ballot understates the GOP's support, and Democrats face further structural impediments to regaining the majority. Democrats also need only look at the last midterm elections to find an example of an early generic-ballot lead fading closer to the election. "It is worth noting that in April of 2009, almost exactly four years ago, Democrats held a 41-34 percent lead in the generic ballot," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Eighteen months later, however, Republicans won a historic landslide, picking up 63 House seats."

Though the poll had a relatively large sample size for a public survey -- 1,471 registered voters were surveyed -- the results are not significant for all the relevant subgroups to draw conclusions about how the early 2014 landscape might differ from 2012, or the GOP wave election of 2010. Furthermore, comparing telephone surveys with exit polls is tricky: Aside from the obviously different methodologies, early pre-election polls have a large percentage of undecided voters, particularly when dealing with a generic ballot question. Still, some of the crosstabs are instructive.

In the new poll, each party's generic candidate captures 86 percent of their own partisans, while self-identified independent voters are split, with 31 percent preferring the Republican, and 30 percent picking the Democrat. In 2012, 94 percent of Democrats voted for the Democratic House candidate, according to exit polls, and 94 percent of Republicans voted for the Republican. Republicans slightly outperformed the Democrats in 2010, with the GOP holding 94 percent of its own voters, while 91 percent of Democrats stayed home. The GOP won independents by seven points in 2012, 51 percent to 44 percent, but that was down from a 19-point advantage in 2010, 56 percent to 37 percent.

The poll shows a gender gap, but it is less pronounced than in exit polls conducted in the last two House elections. The parties run virtually even among male voters, with Republicans leading by a single point, 39 percent to 38 percent. But female voters favor the Democratic candidate, 44 percent to 35 percent. That's close to the 11-point win Dems posted among women in 2012, 55 percent to 44 percent. But Republicans won men last year by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent. Meanwhile, in the GOP wave election of 2010, Republicans won men by 14 points, and also edged Democrats among women by 1 point.

Republicans continue to outduel Democrats among white voters, the poll shows, with their generic House candidate leading by 10 points, 43 percent to 33 percent. That's half the advantage the GOP posted in 2012 among white voters, a 59-percent-to-39-percent drubbing, with Democrats closer to their 2012 performance.

White men favored the GOP candidate by 26 points in 2012 and 28 points in 2010, and they deliver similarly in the Quinnipiac poll, siding with Republicans, by 19 points in the new survey. But among white women, Democrats continue to make a dent: The GOP's lead is just four points, less than the 12- and 19-point advantages the party held in 2012 and 2010, respectively. Moreover, the two parties are tied among white voters with a college degree, a group that went for the Republican by 19 points in 2010.

In addition to Democrats' relatively strong performance among more educated whites and white women, Republicans hold only a one-point lead among voters aged 65 and older, 40 percent to 39 percent. With Social Security and Medicare potentially at risk as part of deficit-reduction proposals, the senior vote -- which Republicans won by 11 points in 2012, and 21 points in 2010 -- will be a flashpoint next year.

The Quinnipiac poll was conducted April 25-29 and carries a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.6 percentage points.

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