04/15/2009 04:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Watching the "Generic"

A DC reporter I know emailed recently to ask, "what do pollsters do in non-election times, like now?" The answer to his question depends on the sort of work they do. As regular readers know well, media pollsters are always busy fielding surveys on a variety of issues. Campaign pollsters -- those that are paid by campaigns to conduct their internal surveys -- spend more time pitching new clients, working on non-campaign work and, if they're lucky, fielding benchmark surveys for candidates in 2009 contests or in highly competitive 2010 races already gearing up.

But whatever they do to pay the bills right now, the campaign pollsters keep careful watch of measures of the new and emerging political environment for clues to the challenges they will face in 2010. One of the most closely watched questions, when available, is the so-called "generic" U.S. House vote that asks respondents whether they plan to vote for the Democratic or Republican U.S. House candidates in their district, and that is something that pollsters are watching carefully even now.

It's not surprising, for example, that congressional handicappers like Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg took note when the most recent NPR survey, conducted by Republican Glen Bolger and Democrat Stan Greenberg, showed a 42%-42% dead-heat on the generic ballot. On our chart, most surveys show the Democratic advantage narrowing to the low single digits.

Over at the Public Opinion Strategies blog TQIA, Glen Bolger explains the significance of the result from the Republican perspective:

After four years of horrendous generic ballot numbers, the data is consistently showing improvement. The latest Public Opinion Strategies national survey, taken April 7-9, 2009 among 800 likely voters, has the generic ballot deficit at 39% Republican/42% Democratic. These data are pretty consistent with what most public polls have been showing in March and now April -- the generic ballot ranges anywhere from tied to a five point Democratic advantage.

What's remarkable about these results (other, of course, than the fact that Republicans are back to being competitive for the first time since 2004) is that the GOPer is close on the generic ballot DESPITE the Dems still significant advantage on party ID. This survey found an eight point party ID deficit -- 33% say they are GOPers, while 41% are Dems, and 24% are Independents (2% refused/don't know combined).

Of course, there is more to gauging political environment than watching the generic House vote. As Bolger pointed out yesterday, for example, several surveys now show greater approval for "Democrats in Congress" than for "Republicans in Congress." Still, Bolger is right that the current results on the generic ballot are better now than they were two years ago, at least in comparison to those from the NPR surveys they helped conduct.


You might wonder how the current generic House vote compares to surveys conducted at this stage in the two-year cycle in previous years. I did, but it turns out to be a tough thing to check since most media pollsters do not start asking the generic House vote until later in the cycle. I checked the Roper Center Archives and the only other pollster I could find that asked a U.S. House vote question on natiional surveys was Stan Greenberg's Democracy Corps project. And their surveys from the first quarter of 2003 and 2005 also show very small (1 or 2 point) Democratic advantages.


So Bolger's characterization is about right: On this measure, things are better now for Republicans than they were two years ago, and roughly the same as four and six years ago.

A side note: The Democracy Corps question is not entirely comparable since they changed the way they asked about U.S. House vote preference in 2006. Originally, like all other pollsters, Democracy Corps asked a fully "generic" question that asked respondents to choose between the "Democratic candidate" and the "Republican candidate. Starting in 2006, they inserted the actual name of the appropriate incumbent member of Congress into the question (and then the name of both candidates later in the cycle once the challenger in each district is identified;* they also used the question on NPR's surveys of competitive districts in 2006, as explained here). When they ran both versions of the question in parallel in surveys in 2005, they found some interesting subgroup differences but the overall results were within a few percentages points of one another, with no party benefiting consistently.

So back to the most intriguing question: Why are Republicans running so close on the House ballot given the larger Democratic advantages in party identification and the presence of a Democratic president with an approval rating hovering at or above sixty percent?

One theory is that the more recent loses in party identification for Republicans have been mostly about the way voters think about presidential politics. The changes on the margins reflect the sharply negative attitudes toward President Bush, and the votes cast for now President Obama. In other words, for those who have shifted their party identification over the last few years, that sense of affiliation is more about Bush and Obama than about their member of Congress. When they think about how they might vote for Congress, they are thinking mostly about what they know (or don't know) about their local candidates.

Consider the contrast in the generic House vote and Obama's job rating when tabulated by party (using the data provided by my National Journal Group colleagues from the most recent Diageo-Hotline poll)


There are differences in each category, but the biggest is among independents. Obama has a 63% approval rating from independents on the most recent Diageo-Hotline poll (56% on our most recent multi-poll trend estimate), but only 23% of independents are ready to support the Democratic House candidate. That's not because the majority of independents are ready to vote Republican, although slightly more (26%) say they will support the GOP candidate. The issue is that most independents on the Diageo-Hotline poll are undecided. More than half (51%) say they are not sure how they will vote, an entirely predictable result for self-identified independents on a question that is all about party labels.

So yes, as Cook, Bolger and many others have argued, those currently identifying as independent may provide Republicans with an opening in 2010. But they have a long way to go. As Bolger argued this week, the Democratic advantage in party ID means that Republicans "have to win Independents big" for a comeback in 2010. For the moment, at least, Obama's popularity among independents stands in the way.

Further reading: I did two-part series on the generic house vote and its accuracy in predicting actual House votes following the 2006 elections.   

*Updated the post to clarify this aspect of the Greenberg/Democracy Corps question.