In the week before Election Day, voters favored a generic Democratic congressional candidate over a Republican by margins as big as 12 percentage points. Just three months into the new Congress -- and still a year and a half out from the midterm elections -- Republicans appear to be pulling even, particularly among independent voters.
Three recent polls show the GOP gaining ground on the generic ballot question, starting with an NPR survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (R) and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (D) that put the two parties exactly square: 42 percent for each. Independents, however, preferred the GOP, 39-30. Democrats led slightly overall, but trailed even worse among independents, in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll out last week that phrased the generic ballot question in terms of curtailing Democratic power.
The latest Diageo/Hotline data gives Dems a little more breathing room, with the generic Democrat leading 37-32. But the trend line was clear: In January, 46 percent favored the generic Democrat; at the beginning of March, 40 percent did so. Independent voters, who at the beginning of March favored Democrats by 3 points, now lean towards Republicans by the same margin.
If these polls are early indicators of an independent break toward the minority party, it will be doubly surprising given those voters' continued support (subscription) for President Obama. Independents were crucial to the party's success in 2008, going 52-44 for Obama last November and 51-43 for Democratic candidates, according to exit polls.
The majority party still has plenty to cheer about, however, including a steady rise in public approval of Congress and the percentage of people who say the country is headed in the right direction. All of the above polls gave Obama, the public face of the party, strong approval ratings as well.
So why are Republicans rising on the generic ballot question? The answer might be found in the talking points of Republican National Congressional Committee director Guy Harrison at a Hotline panel discussion last week: The public gets uncomfortable with one-party rule, and has traditionally punished a new president's party during his first midterm.
That was certainly the message implied by the wording of Fox's survey, which asked voters whether they would prefer a Democrat in Congress "to help Barack Obama pass his policies and programs," or a Republican, "to provide a check on Obama's power and slow down spending."
The checks-and-balances argument likely has special appeal to voters who don't identify with either party -- of the three polls, Fox's showed the heaviest preference for the GOP among independents -- and could explain why these voters seem willing to consider the opposition party even as they say they see signs of improvement. The difference is still relatively small, but the GOP has 18 months to press the point.