Polls give snapshots of future

Published 11:39 am Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Susan Estrich, syndicated columnist

Gallup is out this week with a new poll showing the generic Republican beating the generic Democrat in House contests by 10 points. The gap, Gallup points out, is the biggest one it has seen in midterm generic polls since it started doing them. It is substantially larger than the gap in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House in the first midterm election of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Does that mean it’s time for Republicans to start picking the drapes for their new leadership offices? Should Nancy Pelosi be packing up her gavel?

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Not so fast.

In a choice between being 10 points ahead or 10 points behind, any hack worth her salt will tell you that 10 points ahead is better. But there are enough “buts” in generic polls to make any predictions at this point wildly premature.

First of all, polls are snapshots, not predictors. They tell you where folks are now, which is not necessarily where they’ll be some 10 weeks from now. Politics and public opinion are volatile; every pollster I know will tell you generic polls jump around.

Secondly, generic candidates don’t run. The generic Republican is not facing the generic Democrat in any district in America. Real candidates sometimes do much better — or much worse — than their generic equivalents, depending on all kinds of factors that don’t go into the generic test.

Virtually everyone in Congress gets re-elected every two years, even as people complain about how little they think of Congress. People hate Congress overwhelmingly, but most of them make an exception for the particular person who represents them — who helped find a lost Social Security check, spoke at their kid’s graduation or welcomed them to their office. Incumbents do much better than generics any day.

Thirdly, the Republican Party is showing a number of signs that it is more than capable of stealing defeat from the jaws of victory. The tea party movement has brought real and genuine enthusiasm to the GOP, but it has also brought real divisiveness. Could Harry Reid beat the generic Republican? Not easily. Could he beat tea partier and political newcomer Sharron Angle? Much more likely.

Every Democrat I know is rooting for Palin-favorite Joe Miller to come out on top of incumbent Lisa Murkowski in Alaska precisely because she’s running about 30 points better than he is against the Democrat in a general election contest. Republicans hardly have a monopoly on choosing the candidate who is least likely to win, but in this cycle, at least, they’re way ahead of the Democrats on that score. It may not be thanks to the administration (which, after all, supported brand-new Democrat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania over the eminently more electable Joe Sestak). But the Democrats have ended up with a stronger slate of candidates than a party with problems may deserve.

Lastly, for all the problems with the Democratic agenda, at least there is one. What swept the Republicans to victory in 1994 was not (just) running against the administration, but the perception that they had a unifying agenda — a Contract with America — and were ready to govern. The Republicans have every reason to want to nationalize this election (after all, the generic Republican is a national construct). But other than being against everything the president is for, they have yet to put forth anything resembling a governing plan.

Organizers of last week’s Lincoln Memorial rally have gone out of their way to say it wasn’t about politics, but about faith and spirituality. In addition to making some people nervous about the idea of one group judging the faith and spirituality of others (as in Glenn Beck saying he doesn’t recognize the president’s brand of Christianity, and one of Beck’s rally partners, evangelist leader Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, telling NPR he doesn’t recognize Beck’s), the focus on faith over politics highlights the void as to the latter.

What all this means is not that Democrats will hold on to the House come next fall, but that they can — and that even if they don’t, it hardly spells doom for the president. The one area where the gap between the parties is clearest is that of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm comes from activists and ideologues. Instead of attacking them, this president and his team have to remember to spend some time wooing them.

Clinton lost the House in 1994, but he won re-election handily, in part by running against the Republican Congress. All of which suggests that there are occasions when one must be careful what they wish for.