Just as the economic news was relentlessly negative until the last few days, poll numbers for Republicans were horrific for months. So the GOP should be heartened by the first encouraging polling news it has received perhaps since Lehman Brothers defaulted in mid-September: Republicans have pulled even with Democrats on the generic congressional ballot test, according to a survey by a respected pair of firms.
In the new National Public Radio poll conducted by the Democratic polling company Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and its Republican counterpart, Public Opinion Strategies, 42 percent of the 800 likely voters surveyed March 10 to 14 said that if the next congressional election were held today they would vote for the Republican candidate; an identical percentage of respondents said they would vote for the Democratic one. For several years, Democrats held a substantial lead on this question.
Democrats still outnumbered Republicans in terms of party identification in this poll by 6 points, 45 percent to 39 percent. Democrats also favored their own party's congressional candidates 83 percent to 7 percent. But voters who call themselves independents gave GOP candidates the edge by 14 points, 38 percent to 24 percent. And self-identified Republicans supported their own party's candidates 85 percent to 3 percent.
Republican pollster Glen Bolger, who worked on the survey for Public Opinion Strategies, says that this is the first time since 2004 that he has seen independents favoring Republicans on the generic ballot test. Although he concedes that poll participants agreed -- by margins of 6 to 11 points -- with Democrats more than Republicans on each of the issues tested, he contends that the generic question's results are "evidence that voters, particularly independents, are worried that they overcorrected in the 2006/2008 elections combined, and now have more of a liberal slant to government than they want. They want change but with checks and balances."
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg is hesitant to reach any strong conclusions before seeing more data. So far this year reputable national pollsters have conducted only a handful of generic ballot tests involving live interviews. Two national surveys in January showed large Democratic advantages: A CNN/Opinion Research poll of 1,245 adults taken January 12 to 15 pegged the Democratic edge at 25 points, 56 percent to 31 percent; a Diageo/Hotline survey of 803 registered voters, conducted by Financial Dynamics from January 21 to 24, gave Democrats a 24-point advantage, 46 percent to 22 percent. In the next Diageo/Hotline survey, taken February 28 to March 2, the Democratic margin shrank to 6 points, 40 percent to 34 percent.
The interesting thing about the recent NPR poll is that on many levels, the public expressed much more agreement with and sympathy for Democrats than with Republicans, yet the parties were tied in the generic ballot test. Bolger argues that the poll shows that although Republicans still "have their work cut out for them," the public doesn't want to give President Obama and the Democrats in Congress a blank check.
Regardless of whether Republicans have pulled even with Democrats on the generic ballot question or just substantially closed the gap, Bolger is absolutely right: Americans have truly trusted either party only rarely. Sometimes they may be happier -- or angrier -- with one or the other, but they almost never trust either one completely. Thus, when a party wins the White House and controls both chambers of Congress, and a lot is riding on public policy, voters have tended to hedge their bets.
The simple facts that self-identified Democrats still outnumber Republicans and that Democratic voters support Democratic congressional candidates 83 percent to 7 percent underscore the importance of independent voters. Many Democratic congressional leaders shake their heads with disdain or in disbelief over what they see as the Obama White House's preoccupation or even obsession with pleasing independent voters by promoting bipartisanship, but reaching across party lines is critical to Obama's success. Independent voters do not like partisanship, whether it is practiced by Democrats or Republicans. If Republicans really have pulled even or slightly ahead among independent voters, that is a very ominous sign for Democrats, an indication that Obama's talking the talk of bipartisanship isn't sufficient and that he and the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill have to walk the walk.
This article appears in the March 21, 2009, edition of National Journal.