One of the surveys I follow most closely is the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted jointly by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, two of the very best pollsters in the business. McInturff and his team at Public Opinion Strategies recently did an analysis of NBC/WSJ polls, merging 9,455 voters surveyed in 2010 into one group, the 7,963 interviews conducted in 2012 into a second, and the 2,532 surveyed from June through this month into a third for comparison. The study contained a mountain of data, but what grabbed my attention were the results in each of the three groups on the generic congressional ballot question. While this poll question cannot project how many seats each side will win, it is a useful—if rough—indicator of whether the partisan winds are blowing, and if they are, in what direction and with what intensity. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the generic-ballot question tends to yield results that tilt about 2 points more Democratic than the national popular vote has ultimately ended up, regardless of who conducts the survey or how precisely pollsters ask the question. Nevertheless, it is a generally uniform tilt, so I just mentally subtract 2 points from the Democratic net margin when analyzing these figures.
Looking at Hart and McInturff’s totals, the 2010 merged data—as would be expected, given the very strong Republican performance that Election Day—showed a GOP edge in the generic-ballot test of 45 percent to 43 percent (2 points, but treat it as 4 points to account for the Democratic tilt). In 2012, a good year for Democrats, the party led 47 percent to 42 percent, a 5-point advantage, but again, we’ll knock it down to 3 points for the purposes of this analysis. With these numbers for 2010 and 2012 in mind, how has the generic ballot looked for the past almost four months? The answer: Democrats hold a lead, 45 percent to 42 percent. Adjusted, this works out to a 1-point lead, essentially suggesting a draw at this point.
Something that might be of concern to Democrats, however, is that in this year’s data, independents are tilting Republican by 18 points, 43 percent to 25 percent. This is even more than the 14-point edge that the GOP had in the 2010 polling (40 percent to 26 percent) and dramatically different from the 1-point Democratic edge in 2012 (35 percent to 34 percent). While independents tend to vote in smaller numbers than they do in presidential years, so do some of the strongest Democratic groups, namely minorities, youths, and, in particular, young women. These are the voters who made a huge difference for the Democrats in the 2008 and 2012 elections. This turnout disparity between midterm and presidential years spells trouble for Democrats. They overcame that obstacle in 2006 by running strongly among those independents who had turned on President Bush over the war in Iraq, among other things. The forces at work are considerably different this time around.