Analysis: Democratic Congressional Candidates Pull Ahead; Obama Competitive

Democrats are on the brink of making historic gains in swing Mountain West Congressional districts. Four years ago in these 11 targeted districts, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry lost by 15 points and Democratic Congressional candidates lost by an average of 23 points. Now, however, a sea change has occurred as Obama is nearly tied with McCain (trailing by just thee points – 45 – 48 percent) and Democrats lead in the aggregate vote (50 – 45 percent in the named Congressional vote).[1] Even more encouraging is the fact that Democratic candidates lead in districts currently held by a Republican (48 – 47 percent).

While partisanship has hardened as we approach Election Day – a typical trend – Obama and Congressional Democratic candidates have made gains with key swing voters, including independent women, moderates, women over 50, union households, married voters, and parents of kids under 18.
With both the Democratic presidential candidate and Democratic Congressional candidates making such major strides from four years ago, we believe this represents a cultural shift. Voters in these districts are now seriously supporting Democrats for federal offices, including president, many for the very first time. This is an important point, because in recent elections, Democrats had made gains at the state level in this region, notably for governor and state legislature, but there remained a gap between state performance and federal performance. This poll shows that Democrats have closed this gap and are now breaking through at the federal level as well.

Democrats still have work to do as some of their recent gains are still soft and are by no means assured. Now that they are so intensely competitive in these districts that only four years ago were well out of reach, Democrats need to finish strong to consolidate their newly minted gains and lock in a victory. To do this, Democrats must focus on the economy, and, specifically, they need to emphasize changing our energy policy and developing more alternative energy sources and the jobs that it would bring.

Presidential Vote

Partisan lines have hardened somewhat since our August survey as Obama gained marginally with Democrats (net +3 points) while McCain picked up some more support among Republicans (net +5 points). The big shift, however, has occurred with independents as Obama gained a net 14 points with independents, though we should note that all those gains have come from independent women (a net 46-point gain, Obama now leads 61 – 29 percent) as Obama has clearly broken through in a major way with these swing women voters who have traditionally voted more Republican for president.

Obama also improved his vote share with other key groups:

  • Moderates (+20, 66 – 27)
  • Women 50 years and older (+19, now leading 57 – 38)
  • Independents 50 years and older (+19, 46 – 43)
  • Married women (+18, 50 – 46)
  • Parents (+14, 43 – 48)

We witnessed similar movement with Obama’s favorability ratings as he has improved his image with many of these same key swing voters. Specifically, he gained a net 45 points in favorability among independent women (nearly the identical margin as his net gain in the vote) as nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of these female voters now hold a favorable opinion of Obama compared to only 29 percent who have an unfavorable opinion him.

Congressional Vote

Democrats now lead by five points in these 11 Mountain West districts. This represents extraordinary progress as just four years ago Republicans won these districts in a landslide (by 23 points), just as they had done for the two previous elections (Republicans won in these districts by 23 points in 2002 and 27 points in 2000). This net 28-point shift in the Mountain West in swing Congressional districts represents one of the best turnarounds by Democrats in any part of the country over the past four years.
More impressively, Democrats now lead in GOP-held districts in the named ballot – 48 – 47 percent. This represents a net three-point gain from our August poll as Democrats have leapfrogged Republicans into the lead in districts they lost badly just four years ago.

Congressional Democratic candidates have made large gains with many of the same key swing groups with which Obama made major strides:

  • Independent women (net +41, 71 – 21)
  • Parents (+21, 46 – 47)
  • Union households (+19, 57 – 38)
  • Married women (+19, 54 – 43)
  • Independents 50 years and older (+18, 55 – 37)
  • Moderates (+10, 67 – 27)
  • Women 50 years and older (+8, 59 – 37)

Early Vote is Strongly Democratic
In a trend we are witnessing throughout the country, the early vote so far (20 percent of voters indicated they had cast their ballots) heavily favors Democrats. Obama leads with these voters by 25 points (59 – 34 percent) and Congressional Democratic candidates are ahead by an even bigger margin (62 – 34 percent). We have never seen such lopsided early voting returns like this before. In fact, early voting in most Western states has tilted Republican. This new development is evidence that the energy and intensity we have seen in our polling on the Democratic side is showing up in the ballot box.

Comparing Democrats and Republicans on Key Issues and Traits

While Obama and Democrats have made impressive gains, they still have work to do to continue to convince the public that they deserve their vote and to solidify their lead. Democrats for Congress lead Republicans on key traits, but it is very close on determinative issues, such as the economy.
As the chart shows, voters have more faith in Democrats when it comes to key pocketbook issues – the economy (5-point lead, 49 – 44 percent), health care (16-point lead), and balancing the budget (7-point lead). In addition, Democrats are seen as more likely to “bring the right kind of change (by a margin of 4 points) and “fight for people” (by a margin of 15 points).
These are encouraging findings, particularly on the economy (seen as the top issue by 51 percent of voters) as the Democrats’ margin on that issue precisely matches their overall lead in the vote. But a five-point lead is not something Democrats should feel overconfident about as they need to continue to emphasize the economy in these closing days of the campaign.

Economic Messages

With the economy dominating as an issue, we wanted to provide guidance to Democrats on how best to talk about the economy in the final week of the campaign.

We tested a range of messages, many of which resonated with voters. Nevertheless, by far the best message we tested focuses on alternative energy and the jobs that it would create.
There were several other messages that worked well with swing voters. Notably:

  • A message that focuses on the middle class and fairness
  • Retirement security and protecting Social Security and Medicare
  • Balancing the budget – this works particularly well with independents
Successful Messages
Now, let me read you a series of statements some people have made IN FAVOR of Democrats running for Congress. After hearing each one, please tell me whether it would make you much more likely, somewhat more likely, a little more likely, not more likely, or less likely to vote for the Democrat running for Congress. (The specific name of the Democratic candidate was used in each district)All VotersIndependents
Much MoreTotal MoreMuch MoreTotal More
ENERGY: (DEM CANDIDATE) will focus on investing in alternative energy, like wind and solar power, and new and cheaper energy technologies that are produced here at home. This will create good-paying jobs, help consumers and businesses save money, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.37673566
RETIREMENT SECURITY: In recent weeks, many of us have lost a lot of our retirement savings, putting our futures at risk. (DEM CANDIDATE) will protect Social Security and Medicare and our retirement savings to ensure everyone can afford to retire.33612760
MIDDLE CLASS/FAIRNESS: We need to make our economy work for the middle class. (IDEM CANDIDATE) believes in fairness and that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will get ahead. That’s why (DEM CANDIDATE) will crack down on greedy Wall Street executives and hold them accountable.32612163
BALANCING THE BUDGET: We need to balance the budget to get our economy moving again. For the last several years, we have run up huge budget deficits and the politicians in Washington have increased wasteful spending and earmarks. (DEM CANDIDATE) will cut wasteful spending and get rid of earmarks.30612563

Democrats Need to Inoculate on Taxes and Government Spending

With balancing the budget a priority for voters in the Mountain West, Democrats should emphasize balancing the budget and cutting taxes for the middle class as a positive message not only because it resonates with voters, but also because it inoculates Democrats from a likely attack from Republicans on this front. As bad off as the Republicans are, voters that are contemplating voting Democratic for Congress and President for the first time can still be scared away on taxes and spending. Therefore, it’s important for Democrats to bolster their budget-balancing and fiscal conservative credentials.Voters’ attitudes in this region towards the government bailout of Wall Street banks reflects opinions about increasing government spending, even in dire cases such as this. Nationally, opinion is split on the bailout, with a plurality leaning towards supporting. That is not the case in these Mountain West districts as a solid majority (57 percent, 41 percent strongly) opposes it compared to 36 percent who support it (only 9 percent strongly). This underscores the small government philosophy that is still very much prevalent in these Western districts. Democrats in the West should heed this warning and make sure they clearly communicate to voters that they are fiscal conservatives who will work to rein in wasteful government spending and balance the budget.

The Palin Effect in the West – Divisive, But Not As Negative

While Sarah Palin’s poll numbers have plummeted nationally and she now has a net negative favorability rating, being a governor from a Western state gives her a relative boost (with emphasis on relative) as voters in these Western, traditionally more conservative districts have divided opinions of her (42 percent favorable to 44 percent unfavorable). She is greatly disliked by Democrats (9 percent favorable, 79 percent unfavorable), loved by Republicans by nearly the same margins (79 percent favorable, 8 percent unfavorable), and independents split along gender lines, as independent men like her (49 percent favorable to 35 percent unfavorable) whereas independent women do not (25 percent favorable to 56 percent unfavorable).


With a week to go before Election Day, Democrats are on the verge of making historical gains in Mountain West Congressional districts. If these poll results hold, then the legacy of a Western “cowboy” president (George W. Bush) – who had previously run strongly in these districts – and a Republican presidential candidate from a Mountain Western state (John McCain, Arizona) will be to have helped turn independents, particularly independent women, in this part of the country into Democratic-leaning voters. With the huge gains Democrats are making in the Mountain West, they should work hard to capitalize on their progress and make a concerted effort to permanently realign this region that until recently had been reliably conservative and Republican. If Democrats can continue to build on their success here, then they can turn the Mountain West blue for years, and give themselves a major geopolitical advantage that can help them realign the country in their favor.

[1] Results based on a Democracy Corps poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research among 800 likely voters in 11 battleground districts in the Mountain West (AZ 1, AZ 3, AZ 5, AZ 8, CO 4, ID 1, NV 2, NV 3, NM 1, NM 2 & WY AL) between October 16 – 21, 2008. The sample consisted of 700 likely voters and an oversample of 100 likely Hispanic voters across these 11 districts.

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