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Generic Ballot Blues

Two recent polls, one from NPR and the other from Rasmussen Reports, suggest that Republicans have caught up to Democrats in the generic ballot test, which asks voters which party’s nominee they’d vote for in an election held in their Congressional District today. The NPR poll has the two parties tied at 42 percent on the generic ballot; the Rasmussen poll actually has Republicans ahead 41-39.

Is there reason for Democrats to worry? Well: yes, to a degree, although the fears are probably also exaggerated.

For one thing, we should keep in mind that the party maintaining control of the Presidency almost always loses seats at the midterm elections. Since World War II, the incumbent party has lost an average of 23 House seats at the midterms, although the pattern has tended to be somewhat hit-and-miss in recent cycles (with the incumbent party taking a big hit in 1982, 1994 and 2006, but faring relatively well in 1986, 1990, 1998 and 2002). So the baseline expectation is that the Democrats will lose ground.

Of course, since the House re-elects all of its members every two years, a tie on the generic ballot would imply not merely that Democrats will lose seats, but also that they’ll potentially lose their majority, give or take a few seats depending on how that vote was distributed across different races all over the country. Such an outcome is hard to reconcile with the fact that Democrats continue to maintain a sizable advantage over Republicans in party identification, and that Congressional Democrats are viewed quite a bit more favorably than Congressional Republicans.

The problem, however, is that while Congressional Democrats are more highly regarded than Congressional Republicans, they are still not very popular in the abstract. And party identification is only one of the axes upon which midterm elections turn; the other is the incumbent versus non-incumbent axis. In 1998, for example, while the Democrats bucked the trend by gaining seats while Bill Clinton was still in office, really 1998 was just a good year for incumbents, with 98.3 percent of incumbents who ran for re-election holding onto their jobs. By contrast, in 1978, “only” 93.7 percent of incumbents running for re-election secured it, and there was also a relatively high rate of retirements. Although Democrats suffered the preponderance of the damage in 1978, losing a net of 15 seats, incumbents from both parties were fairly vulnerable.

That 1978 election, for what it’s worth, provides for something of an interesting parallel to what we might see in 2010: a first-term Democratic president amidst a sluggish economy and some simmering (but not net boiling) anti-Washington sentiment, but paired against an opposition party that had plenty of its own problems (in 1978, this was the shadow of Watergate for Republicans; now it’s the shadow of George W. Bush).

If there is a “bipartisan” anti-incumbent wave, in other words, something like what happened in 1978, Democrats will lose some ground simply because they hold more seats now. Suppose, for instance, that between retirements and outright defeats, 20 percent of incumbents from both parties lose their seats to the opposition (this would be a very high figure). That alone would result in a transfer of 15 seats to the Republicans, even if voters were equally disposed to dispatch incumbents from either party.

Still, this is a far cry from the possibility that Democrats could lose their majority, especially in conjunction with the extreme unpopularity of the Republicans in Congress and the failure of the party to articulate compelling policy alternatives. It would be risky to make a judgment based on just two polls, one of which (Rasmussen) has tended to have something of a Republican-leaning house effect since the November elections. Diageo/Hotline, which surveyed the generic ballot three weeks ago, gave the Democrats a 6-point edge. That would imply a net loss of seats for the Democrats, who had about a 9-point generic ballot advantage to support their performance in November 2008, but nothing catastrophic.

The other noteworthy feature is that Republicans have not gained ground so much as Democrats have lost it. The Real Clear Politics average of generic ballot polls — which includes the Rasmussen, NPR and Hotline surveys, puts the Democrats at 40 percent and the Republicans at 39 percent. By contrast, heading into November 4, the averages were 48 percent for Democrats and 39 percent for Republicans. So the Republicans have held steady, while the Dems have dropped from 48 to 40.

So voters may be willing to listen to Republicans — something which they largely weren’t willing to do, frankly, in 2006 or 2008. Where they will end up will depend on how persuasively they can make the case to these voters. I certainly would not rule out the possibility of the House changing hands (Intrade puts the probability at 20 percent, which I think is slightly cheap), although the Senate, where the Democrats will benefit from an abnormally high number of GOP retirements, is another matter. But, the GOP still has plenty of work ahead in nominating compelling candidates and in giving them a compelling message.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.