The 15 Seat Gap

03/09/2010 12:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Make no mistake: this is going to be a very good year for the GOP. But there's a big difference between gaining 25 seats in the House and gaining 40 seats: picking up 40 seats would give the Republicans a narrow majority. Call it the "15 seat gap," and it's almost entirely dependent on a) perceptions of the economy and b) perceptions of the President's performance. It's clear that an electoral wave has been building since last fall. The problem for Republicans is that at some point a wave must crest. And so the question that begs to be asked is this: are we seeing the crest of the wave now or is it still gaining strength and getting bigger? There is conflicting data on this.

On the one hand is data that we are seeing in our national polls showing sustained increases in Republican party identification and voter enthusiasm. This is real. Like most off-year elections, 2010 will be about turnout and, right now, most polls show the GOP with a substantial edge in voter enthusiasm. Republicans have a 3-5 point edge in likely voter models. We are seeing an even split on self-identified voter registration between Democrats and Republicans and a slight GOP advantage on party identification (both a big swing from 2008). The GOP resurgence is real.

This is the same thing we saw in 1994. There was a GOP surge on the generic party ID question that gave us our first clue that Republicans were going to have a big year. As a pollster, at some point you have to stop "weighting" the partisanship data back to historical patterns and start using the new numbers, especially when you see a consistent pattern across multiple national and state surveys.

On the other hand, unemployment data and the President's approval ratings still have time to move around considerably, and it is these two factors that will determine whether the GOP has a good year or a great year. Ultimately, this election will be a referendum on President Obama. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and his performance has "nationalized" this election and created the wave we are seeing. Virtually every political commentator has drawn comparisons between 1994 and 2010 in terms of the potential Congressional sea change. While some areas of comparison are apt (the nationalization of the election and an unpopular health care push), we agree with Charlie Cook that the earlier formation of this 2010 "wave" is a crucial difference. And while it isn't perfectly similar either, we believe that the 1982 election might also provide a useful point of comparison.

Here's what happened in 1982: a net loss of 26 seats for Republicans while the country was in the middle of a deep recession. President Reagan's approval rating had dropped consistently during the year. But one look at the chart below also tells another story: the election occurred at the height of unemployment and during the deepest part of the recession (at least as perceived by voters).

march 9 2010 reagan.jpg

Note the correlating trends: Reagan's approval rating declined in step with the rising unemployment rate. The trend was the problem for Republicans, not the specific unemployment level. By the time of the election Reagan's approval rating was at 42%, a debilitating level for the President's party.

That's why 2010 might be different than 1994. There is the potential, at least, for the unemployment rate to be declining as we move closer to November. We are not economists--and there is no doubt that job growth will be very slow indeed--but there is a pretty good chance that the rate of unemployment will be trending down for the three or four months prior to the 2010 elections. And, as has been noted before, Obama's approval rating has leveled off around 50%. That's not good, but it's also not in the toxic zone like Reagan's in '82 (42%) or Clinton's in '94 (46%).

march 9 2010 obama.jpg

Go ahead and project your own lines out to November. It's anyone's guess, but our sense is that the "15 seat gap" will depend on the trend of a) unemployment and b) perceptions of the President's job performance. If unemployment shows no discernable downward trend and remains at or near 10%, then our feeling is that Obama's approval rating slips into the mid 40's: a danger zone for Democrats, giving the GOP a chance at regaining the House. On the other hand, if unemployment inches downward over the next six months and is at or below nine percent--and the President's approval rating is around 50%--then a net gain of 20-25 seats is about the most that Republicans can expect.

If that happens, the GOP will look back with fondness at March of 2010 as the time when the wave probably did crest.