The Numbers Say Dems Still Have an Edge—But Not a Huge One

In both life and politics, things aren’t always quite as straightforward and tidy as we would like. There can be a general agreement on the direction something is headed, but not necessarily on the degree. A month ago this column looked at dueling high-quality polls—one for ABC News and The Washington Post, the other for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. Each reached very different conclusions on the extent of the Democratic intensity advantage at this point in the election cycle. Given that midterm voter turnout is about a third lower than in presidential years, intensity is especially important to November’s outcome.

Last month’s ABC/Post poll found that among registered voters who said they were certain that they would vote, the Democratic margin on the generic congressional ballot test was just 5 points, down from 15 points among that group in the January survey. Among all registered voters in the April survey, the Democratic margin was 4 points. (The ABC/Post pollsters ask respondents which parties’ candidates they plan to vote for.)

Meanwhile the NBC/WSJ poll, conducted the same days, April 8-11, found that Democrats had a 7-point generic ballot advantage among all registered voters, down from 10 points in March. (NBC/WSJ approaches this question differently, asking respondents which party they would prefer to control Congress after this election.) The April NBC/WSJ poll found that just 49 percent of Republicans rated their interest in the upcoming election at either 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale, while 66 percent of Democrats rated their interest at 9 or 10. People who rate themselves that highly are considered very likely to vote, even in a midterm election.

The NBC/WSJ polling team of Peter Hart and Fred Yang from the Democratic firm Hart Research and Bill McInturff of the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies have not yet begun to release their generic ballot test among likely voters. Some pollsters are reluctant to release likely-voter trial heats and generic ballot tests in the odd-numbered year and even early in election years; the thinking is that the makeup of the electorate this far out is still too unsettled.

Now we are faced with several new polls that have different takes on intensity as well as on the generic ballot test. An April 22-30 Kaiser Family Foundation survey looking at health care policy issues also asked the 1,655 registered voters whether, compared to previous congressional elections, they were more enthusiastic about voting than usual, less enthusiastic, or about the same. The Kaiser survey, highly respected among polling professionals, showed that among registered Democrats, 45 percent were more enthusiastic, 44 percent about the same, 10 percent less. Only 30 percent of Republicans were more enthusiastic, 60 percent about the same, and 9 percent less than normal. Among independents, it was 31 percent more enthusiastic, 55 percent the same, 13 percent less. Among all registered voters, Democrats had an 8-point lead on the generic ballot test, 46 to 38 percent. The survey showed that 49 percent among the total of 2,000 adults polled had a favorable view of “the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare,” 43 percent had an unfavorable opinion, and 9 percent didn’t know or refused to answer.

But then there is a May 2-5 CNN/SSRS poll of 705 registered voters that gave Democrats just a 3-point edge, tighter than the 6-point Democratic advantage in the March CNN poll. In October and February, the CNN polls gave Democrats huge 16-point advantages, and in December an 18-point lead. Personally, I think the numbers have been closer since the first of this year, I seriously doubt that Democrats have had a lead over 12 points at any time this cycle, and I am skeptical that it is as close as 3 points today.

Meanwhile, a May 3-6 CBS News poll of 974 registered voters showed that 50 percent preferred Democrats winning control of Congress, to 41 percent for Republicans. But the poll showed identical percentages of Democrats and Republicans either “very enthusiastic” or “somewhat enthusiastic” about this November’s elections for Congress. Forty-one percent had a favorable view of the Democratic Party and 52 percent unfavorable, but just 36 percent had a favorable view of the Republican Party and 59 percent had a negative view.

So are Democrats ahead by 3 points as the CNN poll suggests, or is it the 8 points that the Kaiser survey shows or the 9 points in the CBS poll? (Fox News has not released a generic ballot test since its March 18-21 poll that showed a 5-point edge for Democrats.) Average the three polls and you get a 6.7-point Democratic advantage, not much different from the 6.1- and 6.2-point advantages that RealClearPolitics.com and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com averages respectively showed early Thursday afternoon.

And is there a big Democratic intensity advantage as the Kaiser poll reflects, a moderate difference as CNN indicates, or no difference as the CBS poll shows? My bet is somewhere between moderate and significant—there is little evidence in polling or actual election returns over the last year that would suggest a level playing field on intensity.

The bottom line is that Republicans are in a very challenging situation in terms of House control, uphill but hardly impossible. In the Senate, Republicans have their worries, but they still have a decent advantage in terms of maintaining their majority.