Analysis: Anti-incumbent mood persists across marginal districts

With Charlie Cook and Republican leaders raising the prospect of Democrats losing control of the Congress, we thought it important to expand the battleground early and determine whether a loss of 41 seats was in the offing based on current polling or whether Democrats are even facing losses greater than the norm for an off-year election.  We expanded our 40-seat Democratic battleground to 55 in addition to the 20 Republican districts we’ve been polling in – and expanded our sample size to 2,000.[1]

Bottom-line, there is no evidence that anything historic or beyond the norm is currently in the works.   If the election were tomorrow, Democrats would likely lose about 20 seats in the current 55-seat battleground, offset by some further Republican losses – resulting in a net loss near 15 to 20 seats.  That is slightly below the historic norm and less than half of the number needed to threaten taking control.  Moreover, the vote and incumbent job approval in the 37 Democratic districts we also polled in July is stable – without sign of a broad deterioration.  This should give some perspective.[2]

To be sure, there are serious trends that put some Democrats at risk, particularly an anti-incumbent mood that is apparent in all three Democratic tiers, as well as the Republican seats.  The Democrats’ image has weakened since July, along with President Obama’s approval in these Republican-leaning seats, in line with national trends from the late summer.  The voters here are split evenly on whether they want to reward their incumbent with reelection or vote for a Republican to control spending.

Members in the top tier, the 20 most vulnerable Democratic seats on the front lines, hold a stable but small lead overall.  As we found in the last cycle, some of the most vulnerable are also the most prepared, and are harder to defeat than you would expect.  It is in the second tier of 20 seats where we see the most slippage on image and vote to reelect – an important warning sign.  In this poll, we added a third tier of 15 long-term Democratic incumbents in mostly very Republican seats.  These incumbents have a good lead and strong personal standing, though the anti-incumbent mood carries here as well with their vote at just 50 percent.  For now, the battleground is contained in the top 40 seats, though we will continue to monitor the full potential battleground.

It is important to note that the class of ’06 is in a much stronger position than the class of ’08 – suggesting that length of tenure and work in the district can build support despite an anti-incumbent environment.
Limiting Republican gains is the continuing crash of the Republican Party across these seats.  That is an extraordinary development and part of why Republicans are having trouble capitalizing on the anti-incumbent mood. This also explains why they will have trouble replicating what Democrats did in 2006 and 2008 when the Democratic Party emerged with a surprising image advantage in these seats, most of which were Republican-held four years ago.  The image of the Republican Party, the incumbent Republicans and the Republicans in Congress are all falling in the battleground – particularly in the Republican tier of seats.

The Republicans have marginally improved their vote position in their 20 seats, but they are short of 50 percent in our named ballot and losing ground on some key incumbency measures.

There is a long way to go until the 2010 election and the position of these incumbents will be impacted by what happens on health care, the economy and what the members do to build support in these districts.  But it is important to have perspective on the scale and direction of the current mood in the congressional battleground.


Anti-Incumbent Mood Pervasive Across Battleground
A pervasive anti-incumbent mood first identified in our July survey has only strengthened and continues to keep ratings low for incumbents of both parties, leaving a minority of voters willing to say they are ready to reelect their members. Both the inexperienced Democratic and more veteran Republican incumbents have only 40 percent of voters saying they will definitely or probably vote to reelect their member. And while voters across all of these districts are now more likely to say they will vote for “someone else,” that is especially true in the second tier seats – where Democratic incumbents have work to do against this environment.

On a more developed choice – will vote to reelect because the (named) incumbent is doing a good job or won’t vote to reelect because “we need new people in Washington” – the Democratic incumbents’ standing is mostly stable across the 40 battleground seats (down a net of 3 points since July), with the lion’s share of losses on this measure coming from incumbents in the second tier. But the Republican members have lost more – down a net of 10 points on the question with 50 percent now saying they won’t vote to reelect.  This is clearly about incumbency in a tough time, with uncertainty about congressional performance.

Favorability ratings for incumbents have dropped a little since July, though the veteran Republican incumbents have taken a much larger hit. Their mean favorability rating has dropped 2.5 degrees since July and now stands at 52.3, while the mostly newly-elected Democratic incumbents have seen their mean rating drop only 1.0 degree, to 50.3.[3]

Despite an overall anti-incumbent mood, our survey suggests that Democratic incumbents who have had more time representing their districts fare much better than those who were most recently elected.  Indeed, members of the class of ’06 lead their generic challengers 50 to 42 percent while members that were part of the ’08 class hold a much smaller 47 to 45 percent advantage.  Similarly on job approval, favorability and the advocacy attributes central to reelection, members serving their second term fare much better than the first-term lawmakers.[4] It is no surprise that members who have had an additional two years to gain the trust and support of their constituents would enjoy stronger standing; however, the class of 2006 has also demonstrated that they can win with a more conservative (non Obama-driven) off-year electorate, something the class of 2008 has yet to do.  The better standing of incumbents in the class of ’06 shows that even in this difficult environment where incumbency no doubt hurts, members who do their job and work hard to build relationships with their constituents do strengthen themselves electorally.

On the big choice that voters will face a year from now – reelecting their Democratic member because they are fighting for change and addressing problems or voting for a Republican because they won’t be a rubber stamp for more wasteful spending – the voters in these Republican-leaning seats are split evenly.  If that result translated into a split on the vote – that would put 20 of these Democratic seats at risk.  Democratic incumbents have a year to deliver on this metric: bringing the right kind of change and doing a good job.

Importantly, on the reverse question, voters across the Republican seats lean toward electing a Democrat who will bring change, rather than reelecting their Republican member because Congress is just more of the same tax and spend policies, a result that is stable since July.

Worsening Republican Standing Could Limit GOP Gains
In the Democratic battleground, negative ratings for the Democratic Party have crept up in every poll we have conducted this year, partially due to an expected settling from the unnatural highs in these Republican-leaning districts in the wake of Obama’s inauguration.  In April, 40 percent of voters gave the Party a cool rating, while nearly half (49 percent) do so now.  A similar pattern happened nationally for President Obama, as the undecided voters moved to a more negative view – leaving his approval now approximately where his vote stood in November.

Yet, the Democratic vote is stable because the Republican brand remains deeply, and increasingly, unpopular.  This is part of the reason Republicans are unlikely to see the kind of gains some are expecting.  The standing of the Republican Party has declined since April (if not quite as dramatically) when they held a net favorability rating of -7 points (33 to 40 percent) compared to the -14 point today (31 to 45 percent). Both parties are now viewed nearly identically (43.7 degrees for the Republican Party and 43.4 degrees for the Democratic Party)[5] – leaving each party with a comparable wind in its face. There is no wave.

This is very different than 2006 and 2008, when the Democratic Party was viewed more favorably than the Republicans in the Republican battleground.  As the Republican brand declined and voters began to abandon Republican incumbents, voters found the Democratic Party moderately appealing.  In a Democracy Corps poll conducted in December 2007 across the 40 most vulnerable Republican-controlled seats, the Republicans were ahead, 47 to 45 percent – nearly identical to the Democrats margin now in the Democrats’ 40-seat battleground. Ultimately, Republicans lost 23 of these 40 seats in 2008.  However, in 2007, the Democratic Party had a mean favorability rating of 46 degrees in those Republican-held seats, 4.3 degrees higher than the Republican Party’s rating at the time.  As we wrote earlier, today the Republican Party is hardly emerging as an appealing alternative in a 40-seat battleground that voted for George Bush by 11 points in 2004, but John McCain by only 1 point in 2008.[6]

Anti-Incumbent Mood Not Yet Putting Long-Time Democratic Incumbents in Danger

In recent months, the NRCC has made clear that it will attempt to expand the congressional playing field past the vulnerable freshmen and sophomore Democrats who make up most of our top two tiers by mounting races against more well-entrenched Democratic incumbents such as Marion Berry, Vic Snyder and Ike Skelton, who represent more conservative districts but have not received a real challenge in some time.  This survey shows that the fifteen longer-term Democratic incumbents[7] such as these that make up our third tier of seats currently hold a 12-point margin over generic challengers, 50 to 38 percent, though the strong anti-incumbent mood makes these potentially competitive at some point.

In the past, these incumbents have usually been able to rely on their standing in these districts to overcome a less-than-optimal political environment.  Currently, 48 percent of voters approve of these incumbents, similar to the ratings of incumbents in the top two tiers.  These incumbents do enjoy a stronger personal rating – at a net +11 points (more warm than cool), though their “warm” number could be stronger.  A plurality of voters says they will vote to reelect these incumbents in 2010.

Republican Party Image Keeping Republican Battleground in Play

In addition to open seats in a few strongly Democratic districts (Illinois-10, Pennsylvania-06 and Delaware-AL), the 20 most vulnerable Republican seats[8] are made potentially vulnerable by two dynamics: the nation’s anti-incumbent mood and the continued weakness of a Republican Party in a battleground that Obama carried by 6 points last year.

The Republicans currently lead this battleground by 9 points, 48 to 39 percent – a small increase from their advantage in July, but a worse showing than the 14-point victory they enjoyed on Election Night 2008.  Importantly, voters in this battleground show little enthusiasm to reelect these members.  Just 40 percent of voters say they will vote to reelect their Republican member, exactly the same number that the Democrats in Tiers 1 and 2 achieve, though fewer in these Republican districts say they’ll vote for someone else.  And when this question is phrased in a more developed way, a 50-percent majority now say that they “CAN’T vote to reelect (named incumbent) because we need new people that will fix Washington” versus just 40 percent who say they “WILL vote to reelect (named incumbent) because he or she is doing a good job.”  This represents a net drop of 10 points since July and is a worse showing than Democrats in any tier.[9]

Importantly, 49 percent of these voters in the Republican battleground – which is actually less Republican leaning – want to vote for a Democrat who will work with President Obama to bring change.  Only 44 percent say they will vote for the (named) incumbent because the Democratic Congress is for more of the same tax and spend policies.

These Republican incumbents have a similar personal standing to the Democratic members in the third tier of seats at a net +10 points (more warm than cool). However, those ratings have declined since July despite a friendlier partisan environment.  The Republicans were able to gain a small amount of ground on the vote despite a decline in personal standing and reelect numbers because of a worsening partisan mood for Democrats.  President Obama’s approval rating has fallen, while the net favorability rating of both the Democratic Party (now at -5 points) and Democrats in Congress (now at -15 points) also dropped.

Still, while Democrats have suffered declines, the Republican Party has as well and remains significantly less popular.  Its net favorability rating is at a dismal -16 points while the ratings of Republicans in Congress plummeted to a striking net favorability of -20 points.  There is no way of getting around the fact that Republicans are deeply unpopular in these battleground districts, and this is keeping these seats in play.

Appendix A: Districts by Tiers
ALABAMA 02*Bobby Bright2008Dem. +1Rep. +39McCain +26
ALABAMA 05*Parker Griffith2008Dem. +4No Rep.McCain +23
COLORADO 04*Betsy Markey2008Dem. +12Rep. +3McCain +1
FLORIDA 08*Alan Grayson2008Dem. +4Rep. +7Obama +6
FLORIDA 24*Suzanne Kosmas2008Dem. +16Rep. +16McCain +2
IDAHO 01*Walt Minnick2008Dem. +1Rep. +5McCain +26
LOUISIANA 03n/an/aUnopposedDem. +15McCain +25
MARYLAND 01*Frank Kratovil2008Dem. +1Rep. +38McCain +18
MISSISSIPPI 01*Travis Childers2008Dem. +11Rep. +32McCain +25
NEW HAMPSHIRE 01*Carol Shea-Porter2006Dem. +6Dem. +2Obama +6
NEW HAMPSHIRE 02*n/an/aDem. +15Dem. +7Obama +13
NEW JERSEY 03*John Adler2008Dem. +4Rep. +17Obama +5
NEW MEXICO 02*Harry Teague2008Dem. +12Rep. +19McCain +1
NEW YORK 24*Mike Arcuri2006Dem. +4Dem. +9Obama +2
NEW YORK 29*Eric Massa2008Dem. +2Rep. +2McCain +2
OHIO 01*Steve Driehaus2008Dem. +5Rep. +4Obama +10
OHIO 15*Mary Jo Kilroy2008Dem. +1Rep. +0.5Obama +9
PENNSYLVANIA 03*Kathy Dahlkemper2008Dem. +2Rep. +12McCain +0.01
VIRGINIA 02*Glenn Nye2008Dem. +5Rep. +3Obama +2
VIRGINIA 05*Tom Perriello2008Dem. +0.2Rep. +19McCain +2
Margins calculated by “Democratic Vote – Republican Vote.”  In ‘Unopposed’ districts, no Republican candidate ran.
NOTE: Starred districts have time series data from previous waves of Democracy Corps research in the congressional battleground this year. Time series data points reflect data only from these districts.
ARIZONA 01*Ann Kirkpatrick2008Dem. +16Rep. +9McCain +10
ARIZONA 05*Harry Mitchell2006Dem. +10Dem. +4McCain +5
CALIFORNIA 11*Jerry McNerney2006Dem. +11Dem. +6Obama +9
GEORGIA 08*Jim Marshall2002Dem. +14Dem. +2McCain +13
ILLINOIS 11*Debbie Halvorson2008Dem. +24Rep. +10Obama +8
ILLINOIS 14*Bill Foster2008Dem. +16Rep. +20Obama +11
INDIANA 09*Baron Hill2006Dem. +19Dem. +5McCain +1
MICHIGAN 07*Mark Schauer2008Dem. +2Rep. +4Obama +6
MICHIGAN 09*Gary Peters2008Dem. +9Rep. +6Obama +13
NEVADA 03*Dina Titus2008Dem. +5Rep. +1Obama +13
NEW MEXICO 01*Martin Heinrich2008Dem. +11Rep. +0.4Obama +20
NEW YORK 13*Mike McMahon2008Dem. +27Rep. +14McCain +2
NEW YORK 19John Hall2006Dem. +17Dem. +2Obama +2
NEW YORK 20*Scott Murphy2009Dem. +0.5Dem. +6Obama +3
NORTH CAROLINA 08*Larry Kissell2008Dem. +11Rep. +0.3Obama +6
OHIO 16*John Boccieri2008Dem. +11Rep. +16McCain +3
PENNSYLVANIA 07n/an/aDem. +19Dem. +13Obama +13
TEXAS 17*Chet Edwards1990Dem. +7Dem. +18McCain +35
TEXAS 23*Ciro Rodriguez2006Dem. +14Dem. +8Obama +3
WISCONSIN 08*Steve Kagen2006Dem. +8Dem. +2Obama +8
Margins calculated by “Democratic Vote – Republican Vote.”  In ‘Unopposed’ districts, no Republican candidate ran.
NOTE: Starred districts have time series data from previous waves of Democracy Corps research in the congressional battleground this year. Time series data points reflect data only from these districts.
ARKANSAS 01Marion Berry1996UnopposedDem. +38McCain +20
ARKANSAS 02Vic Snyder1996UnopposedDem. +21McCain +10
CALIFORNIA 47Loretta Sanchez1996Dem. +11Dem. +25Obama +22
FLORIDA 02Allen Boyd1996Dem. +14UnopposedMcCain +10
KANSAS 03Dennis Moore1998Dem. +24Dem. +31Obama +2
KENTUCKY 06Ben Chandler2004Dem. +16Dem. +85McCain +12
MISSOURI 04Ike Skelton1976Dem. +19Dem. +38McCain +23
NEW YORK 01Tim Bishop2002Dem. +2Dem. +24Obama +4
NORTH DAKOTA 01Earl Pomeroy1992Dem. +9Dem. +31McCain +9
OREGON 04Peter DeFazio1986UnopposedDem. +25Obama +10
TENNESSEE 04Lincoln Davis2002Dem. +11Dem. +33McCain +30
TENNESSEE 08John Tanner1988UnopposedDem. +46McCain +13
VIRGINIA 09Rick Boucher1982UnopposedDem. +36McCain +19
WEST VIRGINIA 01Alan Mollohan1982UnopposedDem. +29McCain +15
WISCONSIN 03Ron Kind1996Dem. +29Dem. +30Obama +17
Margins calculated by “Democratic Vote – Republican Vote.”  In ‘Unopposed’ districts, no Republican candidate ran.
CALIFORNIA 03*Dan Lungren2004Rep. +5Rep. +21Obama +0.5
CALIFORNIA 44*Ken Calvert1992Rep. +2Rep. +23Obama +1
CALIFORNIA 45*Mary Bono Mack1998Rep. +17Rep. +22Obama +5
CALIFORNIA 50*Brian Bilbray1994Rep. +5Rep. +10Obama +4
DELAWARE AL*n/an/aRep. +23Rep. +18Obama +25
FLORIDA 10*Bill Young1970Rep. +21Rep. +32Obama +4
FLORIDA 12*n/an/aRep. +15Rep. +50McCain +4
ILLINOIS 10*n/an/aRep. +5Rep. +6Obama +23
LOUISIANA 02*Joseph Cao2008Rep. +3Dem. +14Obama +49
MICHIGAN 11*Thad McCotter2002Rep. +6Rep. +11Obama +9
MINNESOTA 03*Erik Paulsen2008Rep. +8Rep. +30Obama +6
MINNESOTA 06*Michele Bachmann2006Rep. +3Rep. +8McCain +9
MISSOURI 09*Blaine Luetkemeyer2008Rep. +2Rep. +25McCain +11
NEBRASKA 02*Lee Terry1998Rep. +5Rep. +10Obama +1
OHIO 02Jean Schmidt2005Rep. +7Rep. +1McCain +20
OHIO 12*Patrick Tiberi2000Rep. +13Rep. +14Obama +7
PENNSYLVANIA 06*n/an/aRep. +4Rep. +2Obama +17
PENNSYLVANIA 15*Charlie Dent2004Rep. +17Rep. +11Obama +14
TEXAS 10Michael McCaul2004Rep. +11Rep. +15McCain +10
WASHINGTON 08*Dave Reichert2004Rep. +6Rep. +2Obama +15
NOTE: Starred districts have time series data from previous waves of Democracy Corps research in the congressional battleground this year. Time series data points reflect data only from these districts.

[1] This memo is based on a survey of 1,500 likely voters (1,000 in the 40 most competitive Democratic-held congressional districts and 500 in the 20 most competitive Republican-held congressional districts) conducted October 6-11, 2009. An additional 500 interviews were done as part of an abbreviated survey that focused mainly on the vote and reelection measures in a third tier of 15 Democratic-controlled districts that the NRCC has suggested they will attempt to expand the playing field to include.

[2] In order to have a true apples-to-apples comparison all time series data is based on results from the 37 districts in this battleground that were also included in our July congressional battleground poll.  See the appendix for a list of these districts.

[3] On our 0 to 100 favorability scale.

[4] It is important to note that the class of 2006 fares much better than the class of 2008 on advocacy attributes such as “fights for people here,” “on your side” and “shares your values,” but does not fare any better on more ideological attributes such as “too liberal,” “will raise my taxes,” or “supports too much government spending.”  This suggests that if Democratic incumbents are able to successfully connect with the voters in their districts on these kinds of advocacy issues they will be better able to overcome doubts on issues of ideology, taxes and spending.

[5] Time series data based on common districts from April, July and October surveys.  Across all Democratic districts the current standings are Republican Party: 32 percent warm, 45 percent cool, mean rating of 43.8; Democratic Party: 37 percent warm, 49 percent cool, mean rating of 43.4.

[6] Based on Democracy Corps survey of 876 likely voters across 40 vulnerable Republican-held districts conducted December 10-13, 2007.

[7] See Appendix for a list of incumbents included in the third tier.

[8] See Appendix for a list of the districts included in the Republican battleground.

[9] Time series data based on common districts from July and October surveys.  Over the entire Republican battleground, the results are 39 percent WILL vote to reelect against 50 percent CAN’T vote to reelect.

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