Breaking Down the Generic Ballot, Tax Cuts

JESSICA BADER: With the midterm elections less than six weeks away, each new batch of polls brings on another round of analysis, and those digging through the numbers try to make the polls fit their analysis just as much as they try to make their analysis fit the polls.

Because it would be difficult to poll all of, or even a large percentage of, the 435 congressional districts (the districts most frequently surveyed by public pollsters not affiliated with a campaign are those comprising an entire state) and the internal polls released by campaigns may not always paint an accurate picture of a race (if a campaign has conducted a bunch of polls, they’ll want to release the ones that are outliers in their favor and keep the other results hidden away), the generic ballot is a poll that receives a lot of attention in discussions of control of the House of Representatives. Over the summer, these polls often painted a bleak picture for Democrats, especially a Gallup poll in late August that showed Republicans with a 10-point lead. Yet there is plenty of reason to doubt that the majority party will receive a thrashing of that magnitude.

The first reason is that polling is not perfect. As hard as a pollster may try, there is always the risk of an unrepresentative sample of the population (this has become even more of an issue as many young people no longer have a landline and most pollsters do not call cell phones). The week after that Gallup poll, another Gallup poll of the generic ballot showed a tie between Democrats and Republicans. It’s likely that one or both of those polls was an outlier, much more likely than the idea of public opinion suddenly moving ten points for no apparent reason.

Another reason is that on November 2nd, nobody will go into a voting booth and be given the choice of  “Generic Republican” and “Generic Democrat.” While partisan affiliation is a major factor in how someone will vote, and pure independent voters make up less than 10% of the electorate, candidates do matter (and not just in Delaware). Nate Silver recently examined a set of polls in which the naming of actual candidates showed results about four points more favorable to the Democrat than the generic ballot. There are a couple of possible explanations for this that I can see. One is that most of the Democrats in competitive races this year are incumbents, who even in an anti-incumbent environment have the advantages of name recognition and the ability to tout their constituent service. Another is that Democrats tend to nominate candidates who fit their districts – a good strategy for winning elections even if it causes problems with rounding up votes for specific pieces of legislation – while Republicans tend to cater to their base and nationalize Congressional races. (For a great example of this, take a look at the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th district a few months ago.)

Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that for the most part, generic ballot polls of “likely voters” have been a few points more favorable towards the GOP than polls of registered voters. The RV polls over the past few weeks have shown a closely divided universe of potential voters, while the LV polls make an assumption that voters who support Republicans are more likely to vote than voters who support Democrats. Some of this is demographics (minorities and younger voters, groups that lean Democratic, are less motivated to vote in non-presidential election years), some of this is the “enthusiasm gap” – for a variety of reasons, Republicans are more excited about voting this November than Democrats are. But in a country where most voters at least lean towards supporting a particular party, the midterm elections will be won or lost on turning out one’s supporters, and the vote of tea partier who is amped up to cast a ballot in a deep-red district doesn’t count more than the vote of a liberal in a purple suburb disappointed by some of what Democrats have been unable to accomplish but voting anyway out of a sense of civic duty.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I don’t even know what to say. The biggest problem facing Democrats is a lack of energy among their base. In a vote to extend tax cuts for only income up to $250,000 (even for those making more, the first $250,000 would remain at lower taxable rate), circumstances offered the opportunity to draw a clear political distinction with Republicans just weeks before a critical election.

That they chose otherwise would lead a reasonable person to say- fine. Let them get what they deserve. The problem is, that will turn out to be massive losses, and we, the American people, will end up with a Congress far less able to find votes to solve any of our massive problems.

I’m not even going to bother to make the case for why politically, Americans supported extending tax cuts for those making less than $250K, but not for those making more. If you don’t understand it, I can’t help you, and no amount of polling (trust me, there’s plenty) will convince you. The 44 House Democrats who somehow think a majority in their districts make more than $250K obviously don’t understand math, either.

Only if you are a Democrat in a tight race for a district made entirely of the club where Mr. Burns bets on his company softball team does this approach make sense.

The frustrating thing is how much has been accomplished since the 2008 election. The Stimulus saved the economy from utter catastrophe, the health care legislation means that effective yesterday, protections ranging from increasing the youth age for coverage to 26 to making it illegal to deny coverage over a pre-existing condition, and many other things, are now the law of the land. The Consumer Protection Agency contained within a massively helpful overhaul of the financial regulations alone is a significant step forward.

And for everyone who wishes to believe that President Obama hasn’t done anything for LGBT rights because some recalcitrant Republicans won’t allow repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to reach a vote, take a look at this list.

Ultimately, I was struck by this Daily Show segment. The normally-sharp Jon Stewart goes out of his way to blame President Obama for failing to accomplish everything he said he’d do as president- never once considering that A), it is remarkable that in every instance he cited, he’s actually tried to do what he said he’d do and B) often, came remarkably close to the ideal despite having to go through Congress.

Oh, but his Congress was primarily Democratic, you say? Willing to do what was right for the country, or at least, what would be best for the Democrats politically?

Right. See the tax cut vote that didn’t happen, and go blame President Obama some more. That makes as much sense as voters who wanted progressive change in 2008 failing to turn out in 2010.

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