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Updating the 2006 Election Outlook

by Ruy Teixeira

At the end of last month, I published a lengthy piece on “2006 Election Outlook: The Macro and the Micro”. Here are some updates to that piece.

1. In that piece, I pointed out that low Congressional job approval is generally considered a very unfavorable indicator for the incumbent party in midterm elections and, moreover, is generally associated with relatively large seat swings. The latest Gallup numbers make the situation seem even more dire for the incumbent party:

Public approval of the job Congress is doing has dipped to its lowest level of 2006, and is now the worst Gallup has recorded since the closing days of the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994.

According to an April 10-13, 2006, Gallup Poll, 23% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, while 70% disapprove. The current approval score is slightly below the 25%-27% range seen since January.

The current 23% approval rating for Congress is a near-record low for the institution. Gallup's trend for this question, which started in 1974, shows lower approval scores on only three other occasions: October 1994 (21%), March 1992 (18%), and June 1979 (19%).

2. In the earlier piece, I noted that there appears to be an enthusiasm gap in favor of the Democrats as we head toward this year’s election. A supporting analysis along these lines was provided by an April 17 Washington Post article, “Anger at Bush May Hurt GOP at Polls”, which summarized some key indicators of this enthusiasm gap and what it could portend:

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 47 percent of voters "strongly" disapprove of Bush's job performance, vs. 20 percent who said they "strongly approve."

In the recent past, this perennial truism of politics -- emotion equals turnout -- has worked more to the Republican advantage. Several weeks before the 2002 midterm elections, Bush had 42 percent of voters strongly approving of him, compared with 18 percent in strong opposition. Democrats were stunned on election night when Republicans defied historical patterns and made gains in the House and Senate. The president's party usually loses seats during the first midterm elections after he takes office....

Whether anti-Bush sentiments portend a political tidal wave in November is much debated, but Democrats hope they are hearing early echoes of 1974 and 1994. There was massive turnover of congressional seats in those midterm elections, as fired-up voters first punished Republicans for Watergate, and later turned on Democrats because of President Bill Clinton's failed health-care initiative and because of anger over House ethics abuses.

The intense opposition to Bush is larger than any faced by Clinton. For all the polarization the 42nd president inspired, Clinton's strong disapproval never got above 37 percent in Post-ABC polls during his presidency.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said GOP House candidates have reason to worry. His surveys find that 82 percent of Americans who say they voted for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 plan to vote for a Democrat for the House this year. But only 65 percent who voted for Bush say they will vote for a Republican House nominee, Garin said. The remaining 35 percent say they are open to voting for a Democrat or staying home.

"We get a large chunk of Bush voters who are not motivated to go out and vote for Republicans this fall," Garin said. "That puts a lot of red districts into play."

A recent Gallup analysis provides some very direct data on this enthusiasm gap. Gallup asked voters whether they were more enthusiastic than usual or less enthusiastic than usual about voting this year. They found that 48 percent of Democratic partisans, compared to just 33 percent of Republican partisans, said they were more enthusiastic than usual, a gap of 15 points in the Democrats’ favor. Going back to 1994, Gallup has never observed a gap of this magnitude in the Democrats’ favor–in fact, the only other time the gap has favored the Democrats at all was earlier this year. Otherwise, the Republicans have typically had the advantage or at worst been tied with the Democrats. But this year is very, very different.

3. In the earlier piece, I remarked how strongly independents are leaning Democratic and how much they resemble Democrats in their attitudes toward the Bush administration (the “Indycrat” phenomenon). Here are the latest Gallup data on how independents rate Bush’s job performance in various areas, followed by their (positive) distance from Democrats’ ratings and their (negative) distance from Republicans’ ratings. Note how the magnitude of independents’ distance from Republicans is so much larger than their distance from Democrats.
Overall: 26, +15, -48
Iraq: 22, +15, -51
Economy: 32, +20, -45
Terrorism: 41, +21, -39
Energy: 21, +12, -38
Health care: 21, +9, -37
Immigration: 23, +6, -25