A certain ebb and flow marks every campaign year. In 2010, as everyone knows, most of the flow has been in the Republican Party's direction. But if a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is correct, the tide may have ebbed a bit.
The survey shows the two parties still tied at 44 percent on the generic congressional ballot test among all registered voters, just as they were knotted at 43 percent in late August. The more interesting result is that the Republicans' advantage among likely voters has dropped from 9 points in August, 49 percent to 40 percent, to 3 points now, 46 percent to 43 percent. The new poll also revealed that a higher proportion of African-American and Hispanic voters appeared likely to vote than was the case a month ago. With voter turnout typically about one-third lower in midterm years than in presidential elections, the question of who shows up at the polls is critical. The "enthusiasm gap" has been a chronic problem for Democrats all year.
The survey, conducted September 22-26 by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, was of 1,000 adults, 800 on landlines and 200 who have only cellphones. Among the respondents, 820 were registered voters and 612 were deemed to be likely voters, based on a screen that combined interest in the election with whether a respondent voted in the last midterm, in 2006. Looking at the 470 voters who, on a scale of 1 to 10, said their interest level was very high (either 9 or 10), the GOP still had a 9-point lead, 50 percent to 41 percent. Obviously, Democratic supporters were more numerous in the other component question that helps McInturff and Hart ascertain who should fit into the likely voter subgroup. Using the full sample of registered voters, Republicans led among independents by 14 points, 40 percent to 26 percent.
In a survey conducted September 11-14, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg's Democracy Corps interviewed 1,000 people who voted in 2008 and identified 835 who seemed most likely to vote this year and 165 considered likely not to turn out. Among all respondents, Republicans had a 2-point lead, 46 percent to 44 percent; but among those most likely to vote this year, the GOP had a 10-point lead, 50 percent to 40 percent. Democrats had a 30-point lead among the drop-off voters. For the respondents contacted on a landline, the actual name and party identification of the nominees were included in the question. For cellphone interviews, only the party was supplied. Essentially, it was a generic ballot test.
As the election gets closer, more of the established polling operations will use likely voter screens, despite the greater cost. The problem is that every pollster has a different philosophy and methodology for determining a likely voter. This is where art gets added to science, and thus where political and very experienced questioners have a substantial advantage over some of the more recent arrivals in the world of surveys.
Much of the rest of the new NBC/WSJ poll was bad news for Democrats: President Obama's job-approval rating among registered voters was 46 percent, with 49 percent disapproving; 32 percent thought that the country was headed in the right direction, while 59 percent said that it was on the wrong track. Obama's approval rating on handling the economy was 42 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. Only 32 percent believed that the economy would get better over the next 12 months.
Most of the experts who analyzed the NBC/WSJ numbers concluded that the results represent no big change in the overall political climate, but that Democrats could be getting more engaged. But one poll isn't a trend, and other high-quality surveys that carefully screen for likely voters should be examined for signs that Democrats really are becoming energized. The juice behind the GOP surge has been based in part on an enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats, with independent voters swinging strongly in favor of GOP candidates. In my view, the structure and direction of this election hasn't changed. A natural tightening is occurring. Republicans are still headed toward retaking the House and making substantial gains in the Senate, possibly enough to become the majority. The next round of quality polls of likely voters will show whether that assessment holds.
This article appears in the October 2, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.