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The Forecast Today

by Scott Winship

I've spent a bit of time reading some polls today with an eye toward saying something brilliant about the likely results of the elections. I have to say that I'm inclined to agree with Ezra Klein that national polls on congressional approval tell us very little.

Ezra notes that congressional approval rates were in the low 50s in 1990, when the (majority) Democrats picked up seats, 56% in 1994 when they lost a ton of seats, and 64% when they -- as the minority party -- won seats. I'd add that according to the NYT/CBS poll [pdf] Ezra examines, the share saying their own Representative deserves re-election is down from 1998 and 2002 to its 1994 level, but it was also as low in 1990 when the (majority) Democratic Party picked up seats.

One survey question that is intriguing, however, asks which candidate for one's congressional district a person would vote for if the election were held today. According to the table on p. 13 of the pdf, the tally on this question in the final poll before the election correctly predicts the party that picks up seats in the '94, '98, and '02 elections. By that rule of thumb, the Democrats look in good shape -- they lead 50-35 in the most recent poll, which is the biggest lead found in the NYT/CBS poll between 1994 and today.

However, the table also shows that there are sizeable swings in the last month before elections. One would have predicted that the Dems would pick up seats in '94 based on the September and October polls and that they would pick up seats in '02 based on the early October poll. That means that, well, anything can happen in the next month.

Still, things look pretty good from 30,000 feet. It's true that the percent saying that the economy or jobs is the most important issue has declined steadily since 2003, from one-third of Americans in October of that year to 11% today. Furthermore, the percent of Americans saying terrorism is the most important issue is at 14%, the highest level since prior to mid-2003. And a number of issues on which Democrats are advantaged are irrelevent: just 3-4% of Americans say health care is the most important issue, 1-2% say politicians and government, 1-2% say the environment, and 3% say the heating oil/gas crisis down from 14% in May.

However, throughout 2006, 22-23 percent of Americans have said that Iraq or "war" is the most important problem, and the Democrats are favored on this issue. The elections are going to be about the unpopularity of Iraq and the salience of the terrorist threat. Control of the House will hinge exclusively on which party wins this battle, and Republicans look awfully weak. But again, anything can happen....