The Battle for America 2010: Are the Dems Making a Comeback?

Over the summer, Republicans enjoyed signs of significant gains in this November’s midterm elections. Generic polls, which ask voters if they are more likely to vote for the Republican or Democrat in their district, showed historic advantages for the GOP.

Across the country, Republicans led dozens of races for congressional seats and statehouses currently held by Democrats.  And enthusiasm among those paying attention leaned heavily toward the minority party.

Then came the fall, and, fueled by an occasional poll showing a smaller Republican lead in generic ballot tests, the media and Democrats alike began floating the idea that perhaps the Democrats had turned the tide.  Perhaps the GOP had peaked too soon.  Perhaps the election would not be the bloodletting so many political observers foresaw in July and August. For sure, in this toxic political environment, Democratic candidates would love to see the trends move in their direction.

On September 1, Election Projection, which aggregates polls and pundit ratings to project electoral outcomes, had Republicans winning seven seats in the Senate, a net of 36 seats in the House, and a net 8 governorships. These are solid red wave numbers, but not enough to win either chamber of Congress. In light of the oncoming GOP wave, well-publicized before then, and the alleged Democratic resurgence since, that’s a projection Democrats could live with, right? Maybe not. I’ll tell you why in a bit, but first, let’s look at why a slight uptick in Democratic poll numbers was inevitable.

Throughout the spring and summer, Republicans nationwide were excited looking toward Election Day, energized by a large and growing GOP storm on the horizon. On the other hand, those not particularly keen on a Republican tide were more interested in Tiger’s performance or Lost’s final episode than who was winning the primaries.  Closing in on Election Day, however, they’ll become more and more engaged, and, hence, there should be more non-Tea Party, non-Republican voters in pollsters’ likely voter pools. So, as the election nears, the politically less-interested will become more interested, and these folks will likely be more Democratic-leaning. All this should produce less overwhelming generic ballot deficits and more favorable prospects for Democrats. But has it?

While it is true that an ebb in Republican polling advantages soon after Labor Day moved my projections toward the Democrats, the shift was so slight that it could hardly be described as a comeback. In the House, for every poll that has hinted of Democratic gains, there has been another showing Republicans increasing their lead. In the Senate, for every race where the Democrat has seemed to pull ahead (California Senate, for example), other races (Wisconsin and West Virginia) have given Republicans unexpected pick-up opportunities. Moreover, if Democrats have been enjoying a resurgence, how has Tea-Party favorite Sharron Angle pulled ahead of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? How has Mark Kirk been able to maintain his small lead over Alexi Giannoulias in the Democratic stronghold of Illinois?