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House Majority Tipping Point

There is no set division of labor around here, but Nate generally tracks the Senate and Ed tends to monitor key gubernatorial races, leaving me to keep tabs on the much murkier set of House contests that will determine whether the Republicans have enough political-electoral momentum to dethrone Nancy Pelosi. I’ve written three posts already this month (here, here and here) about House midterm elections, so count this one as the fourth in what will be more or less an ongoing, sporadic series of posts running from now through November.

The impetus this time is pretty straightforward: The “big news” this week that the Democrats seem to be gaining ground in Gallup’s General Congressional Ballot. As Gallup’s Lydia Saad writes in her summary of the results, “The Democrats’ six-point advantage in Gallup Daily interviewing from July 12-18 represents the first statistically significant lead for that party’s candidates since Gallup began weekly tracking of this measure in March.”

OK, what to make of this? What might explain the Democratic bump, will it last, and is it enough to mitigate their expected losses this November?

To begin, loyal 538 readers know that as a general rule of thumb we should use +2D as the GCB “zero point” because of the way Democratic respondents (mostly as a result of racial redistricting) are distributed across House districts. So the good news for Democrats is that the latest generic ballot is above +2; the bad news is that it’s not much above it, particularly when polling margin of error could account for most of that net 4-point spread. One spike up does not a trend make.

However, for the sake of argument let’s presume that Democrats have finally hit bottom and are now starting to surge toward a comeback that will limit their losses to something closer to the historical midterm average loss of about 16 seats, rather than closer to the 39 seats they’ll need to recapture the majority. (Related note: As the National Republican Congressional Committee recently and quite correctly pointed out, some national Democrats are trying to move the goalposts a bit to raise expectations about the number of seats the GOP should gain, so they can spin the results in November.)

In any case, let me spitball a few possible explanations for the turnaround:

1. The poor House Republican response to the BP spill, particularly the whole Joe Barton episode, seriously damaged the Republican momentum by portraying Republicans as elevating big business interests over the national interest;

2. The financial reform debate shifted the national conversation away from difficult economic topics for Democrats like unemployment, stimulus, and bailouts;

3. The painful fight over health care reform is over, and voters are starting to come around a bit on the idea of reform;

4. The national Democratic campaign to depict the GOP as a the “party of no” or “new no ideas”* is starting to gain traction; and/or

5. Anti-incumbent sentiment is subsiding.

I listed these in what I suspect is descending order of contribution to the Democratic surge–again, presuming there is one in the first place. (There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of #5, but I threw it in there anyway.) If I’m right about this ordering, the Democratic advantage may be fleeting and mostly a result of self-inflicted damage by the Republicans. If, however, voters are starting to actually re-assess the accomplishments of Democrats in the 111th Congress, and note the Republicans’ resistance to that progress–in other words, if voters are making substantive, positive evaluations of the Democrats–then the shift could be more real, and lasting.

[*On this question of making hay by depicting Republicans as either having “no ideas” or that they will return America to the Bush era–talking points the DNC is pushing heavily this week–the Gallup survey was in the field before the much-maligned Sunday Meet the Press appearances by the Republican leaders Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. John Cornyn. Even the National Review lambasted their performances and warned against the GOP trying to run out the clock until November in the hope that anti-Obama, anti-incumbent and/or anti-Democratic sentiment carrying them into the majority.]

Which brings me to my final point: If, in fact, voters are coming around to the idea that the GOP is an obstructionist, idea-less minority that belongs out of power, that sentiment may be reflected in future generic ballot results. But I’m not convinced the national narrative has suddenly done a 180, or that Democratic talking points have gained that much traction. Labor Day is just around the corner, and I think we will have a much better sense then whether the Gallup numbers out this week are an aberration or a tipping point.