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State of the Race Update II

by Ruy Teixeira

cross-posted at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/showdown06/)

It's been awhile since I've had a chance to post an update on how the campaign's unfolding. I'm tempted to say: it's just like I said before....only more so! But what fun would that be? So here's a round-up of where things stand.

First, the macro-indicators......

Presidential Approval. Bush's approval rating continues to go down. Charles Franklin's latest trend-based estimate now stands at 36 percent, a substantial decline since late August/early September.

Congressional Approval. Congressional approval continues to run very, very low. In the latest Gallup poll, approval of Congress was only 23 percent. And in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Congressional approval was a stunningly low 16 percent.

Generic Congressional Contest. Charles Franklin's latest trend-based estimate has the Democrats' advantage at 13 points. Knock 5 points off that to compensate for the typical overstatement of the Democratic advantage in this question and you still have a substantial 8 point Democratic lead in the Congressional vote. If that lead holds on election day, that would obviously be good for the Democrats, though how good in terms of actual seat gains is a matter of considerable debate. Or, to put it more bluntly: we just don't know.

Voter Enthusiasm. Pew has just released an extensive study that documents what many other polls have shown: Democrats are much more enthusiastic about voting this year than Republicans are. In that study, 51 percent of Democrats said they were more enthusiastic about voting this year, compared to just 33 percent of Republicans.

That's a bit on the macro situation. But how are things playing on the micro, race by race situation where, of course, the election will be played out and actual political gains accrued?

The House. Analysts universally agree that more and more seats are coming into play. Charlie Cook, for example, now has 43 GOP seats classified as competitive (6 more than he had last week), including 25 he rates as toss-ups and three as leaning Democratic.

Democracy Corps recently surveyed voters in roughly the same set of GOP-held districts that Cook classifies as competitive (they included a few more not on Cook's list) and found signs of what they call a "Republican meltdown" in those districts. They found:

Democrats are ahead by 4 points overall in the named Congressional vote (49 to 45 percent) [named vote means the actual candidate names are given to respondents; in the generic vote the Democratic lead was actually 10 points--RT]; indeed, they are ahead by 2 points (48 to 46 percent) in the bottom tier of presumably safest seats.

This vote represents a dramatic change in the state of the race over the last two weeks. The end of the Congress with the increased pessimism and anger about Iraq and the Foley scandal and subsequent partisan brawl has moved voters to shift their assessments of the parties and their votes. The 1994 election broke at the end; this one just broke. The shift is evident on every indicator party, Bush, war, intensity and morale.

A project of RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics called "Majority Watch" has been polling 54 competitive House districts--49 of which are currently held by Republicans--and currently characterizes 24 of these districts as strong Democratic, 8 as leaning Democratic and 5 ties. Leaving out the ties, that translates into a Democratic gain of 19-27 seats, depending on whether you choose to include the leaning Democratic seats or not--that is, into a Democratic House majority of 222-230 seats.

Note, however, that some of the Majority Watch polls are a bit old and go back to the beginning of the fall. On the other hand, the sitaution in most of these districts has likely only worsened for the Republicans since that time.

Over at Pollster.com, Mark Blumenthal and Charles Franklin look over all the available public polling on competitive House races and assess it as follows:

Looking at the survey averages in districts with two or more polls available, we see Democrats leading beyond the margin of error in ten districts currently held by Republicans....

In addition, we see statistically significant Democratic leads in four more districts held by Republicans surveyed only once by non-partisans since the summer (all four were polled by the Majority Watch project)....

Perhaps more troubling for Republicans is that we see no Republican leading in any district currently held by a Democrat. Moreover, of the 23 Republican held seats currently rated as "toss-ups" by the Cook Political Report, Democrats lead by significant margins in 9, Republicans leading in none. The remaining 13 Republican "toss-up" seats look too close to call based on available data. And that says nothing of the 31 Republican seats that Cook rates at "lean" or "likely" Republican, where public polling is scarcer still.

They also provide a compendium of all the available public polling on these races, a very useful resource. Chris Bowers, over at MyDD, compiles much of the same information on his House forecast page and assesses the overall data as indicating a Democratic gain of 21-28 seats, for a Democratic majority of 224-231 seats.

To summarize, the available micro, race by race data indicate that, based on reasonable assumptions about the relationship between these data and election outcomes, the Democrats will probably retake the House this November--though nothing is certain and the size of a new Democratic majority could range anywhere from a few seats (e.g., 219-216) to thirty or more (e.g., 233-202). Perhaps the safest guess would be in the middle range between these two possibilities.

The Senate. Turning to the Senate, Democratic chances also look good--though not as good as in the House and it is much easier to see them falling short here. Here are the Pollster.com last 5 poll averages for the seven most competitve Republican and one competitive Democratic race: Missouri, 46D-45R; Montana, 48D-41R; New Jersey, 46D-41R; Ohio, 51D-42R; Pennsylvania, 52D-41R; Rhode Island, 46D-40R; Tennessee, 45D-45R; and Virginia, 44D-49R.

At this point, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Montana look particularly solid for the Democrats and they are breathing a sigh of relief for the widening lead Menendez is taking over Kean in New Jersey (see Tom Edsall's very good article on why this is happening). If we also allocate Rhode Island and Missouri to the Democrats, based on their current leads in those states, that would give the Democrats a gain of 5 seats, with a possible sixth and control of the Senate (assuming Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats) depending on whether Ford can beat Corker in Tennessee in the currently-tied race.

That may well be how it all turns out. One more reason to count on a very exciting election night.