It's crunch time for pollsters. One Republican I know gets to his office every morning about 8, sifts through data, writes memos, and participates in conference calls until about 6 p.m. He goes home to eat and rest, then returns to the office around 10 p.m. as the interviews from polling on the East Coast arrive for analysis. He writes reports and makes calls to client campaigns until about 5 a.m., before he goes home to eat and sleep. At 8 a.m. the cycle starts all over again.
Just as baseball pitchers have their quirks, pollsters have their own oddities as they analyze polling data generated nightly. They scrutinize the information on an individual-race basis, and then look at it again in the context of state and national developments.
So what are pollsters and strategists seeing in 2010? Unquestionably, Republicans are still headed for a big year. My hunch is that GOP gains will be roughly comparable to 1994, when the party picked up 52 House seats and eight Senate seats. Over the past two weeks, Democratic performance has improved in some places and deteriorated in others, making any sweeping generalizations difficult.
Yet the races do seem to be tightening. Democrats who were trailing by more than a few percentage points remain behind, but by smaller margins. Although Republican strategists are hardly panicking, they are noticing the tightening. As one Republican strategist put it, Democratic voters were so demoralized that their intensity had only one way to go, and that was up. Democrats still have a formidable challenge in getting their sympathizers to the polls, but their task may not be as difficult as it appeared a few weeks ago, when Democratic voters were even more despondent.
One GOP pollster theorized that as Democrats shifted their messaging focus more to the personal weaknesses and shortcomings of GOP candidates, they energized more of their supporters, perhaps enough to save a few seats and cut margins in others. The tightening seems to be happening in Senate races in Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, but not in Colorado, Missouri, and Washington state, underscoring the danger of drawing sweeping conclusions. In Arkansas, Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln is still well behind, but she's no longer being buried in a landslide. In Pennsylvania, different polls are suggesting different margins, with some showing the contest between former Republican Rep. Pat Toomey and Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak very, very close -- a turnaround from polls that had been showing the race widening and hinting that the contest might be over. In Ohio, former Republican Rep. Rob Portman is holding a solid lead over Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, but it may not be quite as wide as it was.
It's too soon to say whether the tightening is widespread and whether it extends into the House. One Republican strategist pointed to the Democratic open seat in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District -- the district Sestak currently represents -- that had looked like it would be a "walk in the park" for Republicans. Now the race looks like it might be a contest. With so many House seats at play, detecting patterns can be hard. Still, when patterns do emerge, the evidence can be imposing and impressive.
My reaction to recent polls is to think that the odds for a seven- or eight-seat Democratic loss in the Senate have increased, while the chances of losing nine, 10, or more seats have dropped some. The likelihood of runaway victories for Republicans is diminishing. Many of the GOP wins may be in the single digits, perhaps the low single digits.
At this juncture, I am still sticking with a 1994-level outlook: Eight Senate and 52 House seats are the over and under, with a 50 percent chance that Republican gains will be higher and a 50 percent chance that they will be lower. House gains in the 60s, 70s, or even 80s seem unlikely, as do Senate gains of 11 or 12, which would require the GOP to capture or hold 100 percent of the 18 or so Senate seats that could change hands. Even so, Republicans stand poised to make sizable gains that will flip the House and bring them close to winning the Senate.
This article appears in the October 16, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.