Losing the Battleground

Last week National Public Radio (NPR) released its new poll conducted by one of Bill Clinton’s old pollsters, Stanley Greenberg, and Republican colleague, Glen Bolger.

In a June 15 story, NPR political correspondent and Fox News Channel contributor, Mara Liasson, said the new poll is “grim news for Democrats.” In a curious syntactical formulation, she reported that it “shows just how difficult it will be for Democrats to avoid big losses in the House this November.”

How grim is grim? According to Greenberg, “In a year where voters want change and in which Democrats are seen to be in power, this is a tough poll — about as tough as you get.”

“If Massachusetts was the first wake-up call [for Democrats], this is the snooze alarm going off,” said Bolger.

The Greenberg-Bolger poll focused on “battleground” races in 70 House districts that are viewed by most “experts” or pundits as likely to throw out incumbents in the upcoming election. The races also included open seats that are inclined to switch party control.

Sixty of the them are currently held by Democrats, “many of whom won these seats even when voters in the same district preferred Republican John McCain for president in 2008.” Ten seats are held by Republicans in districts that went for Barack Obama.

“In this battleground, voters are choosing Republicans over Democrats 49 to 41 percent,” says Liasson.

One thousand two hundred likely voters were interviewed in total for this poll. Details on the poll can be found here. It is the first of a series to be conducted for NPR.

NPR’s pollsters believe that Democratic House losses “could well exceed 30 seats.”

Bolger pointed out that President Obama’s approval ratings are much lower in these competitive districts than they are nationally: 54 percent of the likely battleground voters disapproved of Obama’s performance; 40 percent approved.

“When you look at history, when the president is below 50 percent nationally, his party tends to lose more than 40 seats,” claims Bolger.

By 57 to 37 percent, voters in the 60 Democratic seats believe that President Obama’s economic policies have produced record deficits while failing to slow job losses, avert a crisis or lay a foundation for future growth.

If party energy or intensity is a key variable to election success, Republicans appear to have a clear advantage. Sixty-two percent of Republicans in Democratic districts describe themselves as very enthusiastic about the upcoming election. Only 37 percent of Democrats in these same districts feel the same way.

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Douglas E. Schoen and Patrick H. Caddell, pollsters for Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, respectively, noted June polling results from the Washington Post/ABC News survey that show only 29 percent of Americans inclined to support their House representative in November.

“That’s an even lower percentage than in October 1994 (34%), on the eve of the Republican takeover of Congress when voters swept the Democrats out of power in that chamber after 40 years in the majority,” recalled Schoen and Caddell.

Moreover, these same pollsters also cite a recent Gallup poll in which voters, by a wide margin of nearly two-to-one (60%-32%), “said they would rather vote for a candidate for Congress with no experience whatsoever than for a candidate who has been in Congress.”

Five months out from the election, any given poll must be treated as a snapshot of a particular moment in time. You still have to show up and play the game. However, data such as those revealed in the NPR and other polls provide invaluable fodder for GOP fundraising, volunteer recruitment and the maintenance of grassroots enthusiasm. On the other hand, the trap of rising expectations and overconfidence could cause the Republicans to play it safe in the face of what will most certainly be a vigorous effort by the party in power to do “whatever it takes” to hold on to its turf.

Schoen and Caddell believe that the Republicans are winning support “because they are not Democrats.” The polling data reveal strong opposition to President Obama and Democratic policies. However, less than a third (31%) of voters queried in a May Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said they support the GOP and its candidates.

“Indeed, voters are no more confident with the Republican leadership’s agenda than with the Democrats’, and disapproval and disaffection with the GOP are just as high, if not higher,” opined Schoen and Caddell. A June 8 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 6 in 10 respondents said they had a negative view of policies put forth by congressional Republicans and only one-third trust Republicans over Democrats to handle the nation’s problems.

Yet, Democrats face a daunting challenge, given the anemic rate of job creation, a chaotic stock market, budgetary and fiscal meltdown, widespread fear of the new health care legislation, and stiff resistance to carbon cap-and-trade legislation. Oh yes, taxes are going up, too.

To seize the present opportunity, claim Schoen and Caddell, Republicans will have to offer “a clear set of core principles, if not a comprehensive set of bold ideas. If they do not, their hopes of winning both houses of Congress come November — a goal that is well within reach — could be dashed.”

The game is afoot.

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