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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Polling Is Your Friend

Others may have said this before, but given some of the reaction to a recent Gallup report on the 2010 midterms, I’ll say it myself -- polling is your friend. More specifically, well-conducted polling -- with state-of-the-art methods and a track record of accuracy in predicting elections -- is your friend. Because whether the news out of such a poll is good or bad for your cause, the data is real, and coming to grips with it can only help you.

On July 19 Gallup reported that Democrats had moved into a six-point lead over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot among registered voters, 49% to 43%. That marked the first time this year that the Democrats held a statistically significant edge on this important midterm forecasting measure. Suddenly, there was reason for Democrats to feel encouraged that major midterm congressional losses may not be a foregone conclusion -- and for Republicans to worry about the same.

Furthermore, Democrats’ six-percentage-point lead was recorded the very same week that Congress passed a financial regulatory reform bill that Fox News described as "the broadest overhaul of financial rules since the Great Depression," and that Democrats like Sen. Christopher Dodd have described as a landmark pro-consumer achievement.

One could assume it was merely by chance that the unusually high Democratic support found from July 12-18 coincided with this news out of Washington. There is a case to be made for that. But additional information from Gallup’s polling over the same seven-day period suggests other possibilities. At the same time the Democrats gained on the generic ballot, Republicans’ self-expressed enthusiasm for voting in the fall elections also rose -- substantially. Repeating a pattern we saw after passage of healthcare in late March, the success of financial regulatory reform seemed to ignite Republicans’ passion for transforming the party composition of Congress this fall. That finding is completely independent of the Democratic surge -- but linked to the same potential cause. Curious, to say the least.

All of the above was broadly discussed in Gallup’s July 19 release of the data.  Smart political observers on both sides of the aisle could glean some potentially useful insights into a successful election strategy from these data. In particular, the fact that support for Democratic congressional candidates was up most sharply among independents highlights the value to Democrats of continuing to emphasize their role in passing financial regulatory reform. Republicans, on the other hand, may need to assess whether they are better off attacking the reform act -- both to temper independents' support for it and amplify Republican turnout -- or changing the subject.

While politicos can ponder those sort of options, Gallup’s next generic ballot update, to be released on Monday afternoon, will help answer the critical question of whether the spike in Democratic support seen July 12-18 was a short-lived reaction to news, a short-term uptick based on statistical chance, or more of a sustained shift.

Whatever the result, as is almost always the case, Republicans and Democrats alike can benefit most in the long run by spending time reflecting on the potential implications of the data.


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