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Generic Congressional Polls: Believe Them . . . or Not?

3 years ago
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It's no surprise that the topic attracting the lion's share of the attention this campaign year is Republicans' chances of regaining control of the House after two disastrous election cycles (with the possibility that the Senate may switch hands starting to be taken seriously, as well). And perhaps one of the most-watched measures of how things are going is the generic congressional ballot.

The question on the generic ballot is usually some variation of this: "If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives in November were being held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate in your congressional district?"

The venerable polling organization, Gallup, has been doing the generic ballot since 1950, and it captured headlines at the end of August with a survey that showed Republicans with an "unprecedented" 10-point lead over Democrats among registered voters. That was the largest margin in favor of one party or the other in Gallup's history of tracking midterm elections.
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Polling guru Nate Silver wrote, "When a poll produces an 'unusual' result, it simply reflects random noise and the best advice is to wait for the next edition of the poll to come along, when more often than not it will revert to its previous position." Silver, who considers Gallup's generic ballot an important element of the models he uses for predictions, made that observation not as a criticism of the pollster, but as the reason he does not often comment on individual polls.

Silver added, "If you were to take the exact same survey and put it into the field again - but interview 1,450 different registered voters, instead of the ones Gallup surveyed - you would most likely not find the G.O.P. with a 10-point advantage."

And, when Gallup did go into the field again between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5, it found, in its poll released Tuesday, that Republicans and Democrats were tied at 46 percent each.

Between those two Gallup surveys, a Washington Post/ABC News poll had Republicans ahead 47 percent to 45 percent among registered voters, but with a bigger 53-percent-to-40 percent advantage among likely voters; the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll had a 43 percent split among all adults, but a 49-percent-to-40 percent advantage for the GOP among likely voters; and, CNN put the Republicans ahead 52 percent to 45 percent among registered voters. When CNN included "all Americans," the Republican edge was 49 percent to 45 percent. (For a round-up of those polls and links to the polls themselves, click here).

So, what to make of the generic ballot? After all, people don't vote for "generic" candidates on election day. They also tend to favor their own representatives, as is illustrated by the fact that only a fraction of the 435 House seats are really in play in any given cycle, although this year there is more ferment out there.

(The University of Virginia's Larry Sabato rates 29 seats as true toss-ups; the Cook Political Report puts that number at 45 and CQ Politics at 36. When races that are leaning one way or another but still considered competitive are added in, the total usually comes to something over 70).

Gallup says its generic poll, particularly when election day draws nearer and it shifts to "likely voters," has proven to be a good indicator of how the final result will turn out.

Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, agrees: "We think the generic ballot is a useful predictor of the national two-party vote for Congress, which itself is a good predictor of swings in the partisan distribution of House seats. Given that conducting individual House district polls is not feasible on anything like the scale you'd need for a national prediction, the generic ballot is the next best thing."

But how to square the generic numbers, as a predictor, with the fact that only a minority of all the races are in doubt?

Keeter acknowledges that there "are many uncontested elections and others that are lopsided," but said the generic polling is important because "there are potentially many competitive races where a shift in the national mood or preference between the parties can matter."

"That was especially true in 1982, 1994, 1998, and 2006," he said. "In 1994, we saw the end of the old New Deal alignment in which conservative southern Democrats got replaced by even more conservative southern Republicans, due to a strong differential turnout between Democratic and Republican voters. The situation in 2006 was similar, except that the strong Democratic turnout edged out many Republicans in conservative districts. This year, those pickups are perhaps the most vulnerable to switching back due to the change in national mood."

Now that we're past Labor Day, the traditional start of the campaign, the focus of pollsters will be on likely voters -- something that puts even more importance on the measures of voter enthusiasm. (Gallup has found a 2-to-1 enthusiasm gap in its two latest polls in favor of the Republicans).

Nate Silver wrote, "We've found that the gap between registered and likely voter polls this year is about four points in the Republicans' favor -- so a 10-point lead in a registered voter poll is the equivalent of about 14 points on a likely-voter basis."

The shift to the "likely voter" model may produce even more variation in results among different pollsters, given the different ways they use to determine the makeup of that "likely voter" base. That's one reason "likely voter" samples usually have a larger margin of error than polls of registered voters. Pollsters weigh factors like voter interest in the election (enthusiasm), stated intention to vote, past voting history, and even awareness of where to vote.

"One thing that is tough about the current election is that Republicans have been fired up for most of the year, while Democrats have been somewhat depressed," Keeter said. "The normal situation is that most voters don't get engaged in the fall elections until the fall. So, a big question for the Democrats is whether their core voters are going to get engaged once the local campaigns get under way in earnest."

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22 Comments

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Rob & Kathy

The gallup poll was correct in 1994. They showed the GOP with a 5 point lead when they swept the Dems out of the majority. The last poll showed the GOP with a 10 point lead...

September 10 2010 at 12:06 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

If you take a poll in Vermont and ask where does the best ice cream come from they will say Ben and Jerry's in VT. in South Carolina they will say they have the best golf courses. Polling is relevant to what you want the outcome to be.

September 09 2010 at 6:26 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
snrar

Polls are nothing but getting a feeling for what the voters are thinking not an exact reading , Yet people that do this for a living are specific and say this all the time . So that being said to the guy who says polls are for the weak minded people I say " LOOKS LIKE THE DEMOCRATS ARE IN FOR A LONG DAY " come Nov.

September 09 2010 at 5:31 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
ewaynee

Polls are for weak minded people. The media reports poll results as if it is how the majority of the people feel. A few thousand people surveyed does not represent a country made up of multi-millions. I can look in a phone book find people in the surburbs get one result and survey people in a certain section of the city and get a different result. Hey poll people, the people are not stupid. Your brain washing days are behind us. Americans are educated and can think for themselves. Everyone remembers what things were like two years ago, and I am not ready to go back to those days, thank you.

September 09 2010 at 1:03 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ewaynee's comment
ettu

It is my understanding that the serious pollsters do not concentrate on any one area of the country, nor any particular "group" of people, in order to get a good indication of the mood of the electorate. I seriously doubt they would limit their survey to a "known" conservative area, or known liberal area. What would be the purpose? Fool the people? Fool the politicians? Doesn't work......we are who we are, we gravitate toward those who hold the values we embrace. When the politicians stray too far from what the majority wants, they will be replaced.

September 09 2010 at 3:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
msgusarmyret77

The polls very because most people don't follow what is happening until just before the election. When the time to vote comes the voters will have to look at what the Democrats did to help the middle-class despite the Party of NO trying to block them. The best example of what the Republicans want is extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Only 2.5% of those making over $250,000 per year and filing as individuals hire people. The other 97.5% just add it to their saving. It will increase the National Debt by over $700 million over ten years but the Republicans don't care. Pres. Bush increased the National Debt by $4.9 trillion and the Republicans didn't blink a eye.

September 09 2010 at 10:50 AM Report abuse -11 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to msgusarmyret77's comment
truthforfreedom

What have they done for the middle class? Obviously, the Republicans haven't blocked anything. The democrats don't need their vote, they are in the majority. How do you justify yourself? You say Bush increased the National debt by $4.9 trillion. As of July 2010, the national debt was, $13.258 trillion. You do the math. Since 2007 democrats have had a wonderful time spending and the democrats haven't blinked an eye.

September 09 2010 at 11:59 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
rcwaechter

It's interesting. When Obama was ahead in the polls, we didn't have all these articles explaining why the polls really didn't reflect the real mood of the country. The commentators just assumed the polls reflected the votes because the polls reflected their beliefs. So the only way they can convince themselves now that the world is still following them, is to look back and see no one there, and then, like The Emperor's New Clothes, congratulate themselves on all those behind them. Ooops. On any given day they might have been...but then again, they're not.

September 09 2010 at 7:21 AM Report abuse +20 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to rcwaechter's comment
christierandall

big business does not help the little guy...they rape the little guy while lining their own pockets with tax breaks that the republicans bestow upon them..while at the same time the repubs are lining their pockets for the favor. What the dems want to do is to make sure that the big guy who makes huge profits/bonuses pays their fair share.

September 09 2010 at 10:06 AM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply
christierandall

When was that?

September 09 2010 at 12:21 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
Susie

Gallup's poll two weeks ago showed repubs with a 10 point lead......last week's poll shows both parties tied at 46%.........why is this not being reported? What is the agenda of the media?

September 09 2010 at 12:27 AM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Susie's comment
Mike

The polls are like statistics, what's the question.

September 09 2010 at 2:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ettu

You should follow Rasmussen..........the most accurate pollsters around. Gallup never updated their models. You will not see the Rasmussen polls being so eratic.

September 09 2010 at 4:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
radareastbay

the president needs to kick out all his people he brought in to guide the recovery. they are all lawyers no business experience. bring in business leaders with ideas to run this country thru small business not big unions. 95 percent of small business is non union. big goverment is all union. what a mess obama has created. he catered to big unions the 871 billion stimulus package.

September 09 2010 at 12:01 AM Report abuse +19 rate up rate down Reply
acwilliams

Why is it when the polls show the Dems are going to get creamed, the polls aren't accurate and they cast doubt. And when the socialist Dems are doing well, it's gospel, written in stone, just a matter of time until the result is final! Save our Country vote every Dem out and vote Tea Party. Talk is cheap, actions stand for everything!

September 08 2010 at 11:59 PM Report abuse +24 rate up rate down Reply
Andy

Polls don't count toward the actual vote. But, the next two general elections will be the most important in U.S. history. I know who for and why I will vote. It will not be for the current admin. I have missed one election. The one in 2008 because I was recovering from heart surgery and trying to rehab and couldn't even walk. In the next two general elections I plan to run, if I can, to the polling place to cast my vote and retake America from what I consider a president who mislead those who voted for him, and his socialist agenda. 9-8 11:28

September 08 2010 at 11:28 PM Report abuse +20 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Andy's comment
christierandall

There are still many people who see the republicans as the "do nothing" party and will not vote for them. Look at their main agenda this year..."make Obama fail". Why would anyone in their right mind vote for someone who could care so little about the progress of our country over their party.

September 09 2010 at 10:08 AM Report abuse -11 rate up rate down Reply

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