Imagine sitting in Washington's Verizon Center, listening blissfully to Carole King and James Taylor, thanks to a fast-thinking friend who managed to score four floor seats. For 50-somethings, it's a nice place to be. Then, as the concert is winding down, four pages of poll tables of a just-released survey pop up in your BlackBerry. They are jaw-dropping numbers, not inconsistent with what you had been thinking -- if anything more a confirmation of it. But the dramatic nature of the numbers brings the real world of politics crashing through what had been a most mellow evening.
The numbers were from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted June 17-21 among 1,000 adults by pollsters Peter Hart (a Democrat) and Bill McInturff (a Republican). Among the registered voters in the survey, Republicans led by 2 points on the generic congressional ballot test, 45 percent to 43 percent. This may not sound like a lot, given that Democrats now hold 59 percent of House seats. When this same poll was taken in June 2008, however, Democrats led by 19 points, 52 percent to 33 percent.
That drop-off should be enough to sober Democrats up, but the next set of data was even more chilling. First, keep in mind that all registered voters don't vote even in presidential years, and that in midterm elections the turnout is about one-third less. In an attempt to ascertain who really is most likely to vote, pollsters asked registered voters, on a scale of 1 to 10, how interested they were in the November elections. Those who said either 9 or 10 added up to just over half of the registered voters, coming in at 51 percent.
Hart and McInturff then looked at the change among the most-interested voters from the same survey in 2008. Although 2010 is a "down-shifting" election, from a high-turnout presidential year to a lower-turnout midterm year, one group was more interested in November than it was in 2008: those who had voted for Republican John McCain for president. And the groups that showed the largest decline in interest? Those who voted for Barack Obama -- liberals, African-Americans, self-described Democrats, moderates, those living in either the Northeast or West, and younger voters 18 to 34 years of age. These are the "Holy Mackerel" numbers.
Among all voters, there has been a significant swing since 2008 when Democrats took their new majority won in 2006 to an even higher level. But when you home in on those people in this survey who are most likely to vote, the numbers are devastating. The NBC/WSJ survey, when combined with a previously released NPR study of likely voters in 70 competitive House districts by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and Republican Glen Bolger, point to an outcome for Democrats that is as serious as a heart attack. Make no mistake about it: There is a wave out there, and for Democrats, the House is, at best, teetering on the edge.
To be sure, things could change in the four months between now and November 2. The GOP's failure to get Republicans to vote in the May 18 special election in Pennsylvania's 12th District underscores that the party can't just sit back and await spontaneous combustion in terms of turnout. Still, the potential is here for a result that is proportional to some of the bigger postwar midterm wave elections. These kinds of waves are often ragged; almost always some candidates who looked dead somehow survive and others who were deemed safe get sucked down in the undertow. That's the nature of these beasts. But the recent numbers confirm that trends first spotted late last summer have fully developed into at least a Category 3 or 4 hurricane.
Given how many House seats were newly won by Democrats in 2008 in GOP districts, and given that this election is leading into an all-important redistricting year, this reversal of fortune couldn't have happened at a worse time for Democrats.
This article appears in the July 3, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.