Not so fast: 2014 Congressional Battleground Very Competitive

The first Democracy Corps Congressional Battleground survey of the most competitive House races will challenge serious commentary and the informed presumptions about the 2014 election.  Analysts, pundits, and commentators have concluded that there will be fewer seats in play in 2014 and that neither party is likely to upset the current balance.  To be honest, this poll surprised us. It shows Democrats could at least replicate the net gain of 8 seats they achieved in 2012 – and that Republicans are exposed as the country tires of Tea Party gridlock, Obamacare repeal efforts, threats to Medicare and Social Security, and politicians protecting the richest.[1]  The parties’ strongest attacks, including on health care, produce big gains for Democrats – bigger shifts than we have seen in a long time.  In the past, that has been a precursor to future gains.

We understand why this is not starting presumption for 2014.  In the aftermath of redistricting and the Democrats’ gains in 2012, the number of competitive seats is smaller and fairly balanced.  The electorate in off-years is less demographically congenial to Democrats – and if it looks anything like 2010, one would pray for gains.  After all, Republicans won their battleground seats by 10 points in 2012.  Many point to a sixth year midterm election trend in which the president’s party has lost an average of 26 seats in the House since World War II. 

But this survey, we hope, leads all of us to look hard at these presumptions, which would predict no emerging wave.  Based on this survey, we see a Republican Party brand in disrepute in the Republican seats, in the off-year, and among a supposedly more Republican electorate.  Maybe voters are smarter than we think.  Six months into the new Congress, they are increasingly hostile to the Tea Party and to members who pledge no tax increases and seek to kill the Obama agenda.  The voters oppose repealing Obamacare, so what is the reaction after 37 tries? 

Not factored into the assessments of this cycle is the possibility that the voters are watching, that seniors are watching.  As this poll shows, Republicans own the Congress and the hyper-partisanship that keeps the country from achieving progress.

The result: Republicans have lost half their lead from 2012 – despite the more Republican seats and a more conservative electorate. 

Democracy Corps’ Congressional Battleground poll is the only one where interviews are conducted exclusively in the most competitive Democratic and Republican seats, using the actual names of incumbents in their districts.  This is not a generic test ballot.  And this survey has been a pretty good guide to the expanding battlegrounds in the elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010. 

The findings are so striking because we have accepted that the 2014 electorate would look like 2010, with adjustments for population growth and new registrants with a strong intention to vote. And the respondents drawn from a voter file for this survey were actual 2010 voters.  In future polls, we will also allow 2006 off-year voters.  The result is striking: only 9 percent of these voters are under 30; only 5 percent are Latino, and 5 percent African-American.  That is why we find it hard to dismiss the results in this survey.

Why Republican battleground seats are at risk:

  • The Republican and Tea Party brands are toxic.  In seats held by Republicans, almost half rate the Republican Congress and Tea Party negatively.  The Democratic Party enjoys a net 6-point favorability advantage over the Republican Party in these Republican seats.
  • Republicans are increasingly out of touch on key budget priorities, including taxes, and voters know it.  Majorities want their named member to ask the wealthiest to pay a greater share of taxes.  Indeed, the biggest concern is that their member sides with the rich and big corporations ahead of the middle class.
  • Voters are fed up with the gridlock in Washington and they see Republicans as the main driver of it.  By more than two-to-one (64 to 30 percent), these voters want their Republican incumbents to work with President Obama, not stop him from advancing his agenda – that margin is up 21 points from last summer in the presidential-year Republican battleground.  An uncompromising Republican Congress, only focused on blocking Obama’s agenda, ranks among voters’ top concerns in these districts.
  • Voters are looking to implement and improve the health care reform law, not repeal it.  Republicans’ obsession with repeal is out-of-step with voters in even these Republican-held districts.  In the most competitive seats, voters favor implementing the law over repealing it by 8 points.
  • Seniors are a potentially big story.  Seniors broke heavily for Republicans in 2010, and they are a disproportionate voice in off-year elections.  This survey shows the race tied with them, which would be a huge turnaround.  And it is seniors who move the most after the attacks in the survey. 

By the end of 2009, seniors settled in against the Democrats and were pretty unmovable after the battles over health care in which Republicans attacked Democrats for jeopardizing Medicare.  Perhaps seniors are looking at the sustained Republican effort since the election to cut Medicare and Social Security and they are drawing conclusions that could settle in.

The Rising American Electorate of young people, minorities, and unmarried women are not yet a big factor in helping Democrats because of their presumed lower turnout, but also because unmarried women are not voting Democratic in landslide numbers and not as engaged as other voters.

Why Democrats will mostly hold the Democratic battleground seats:

  • Democrats have a good lead in the big blocs of suburban and Obama seats.  In suburban districts, which represent half of the battleground, Democrats lead Republicans by 9 points, 47 to 38 percent; in the  Obama districts, which make up over 70 percent of the battleground, Democrats lead Republicans by 7 points, 46 to 39 percent.  That leaves the Republicans with leads only in the 9 non-Obama seats.
  • The GOP and Tea Party brands are toxic.  While these are competitive seats in the off-year, the Democratic members, unlike the Republicans, have a strong partisan wind at their backs.  Half the voters give John Boehner, the Republican Party, and the Republican Congress negative ratings.  The Democratic Party and the Democrats in Congress are viewed 10 points more favorably than their counterparts.  This is not at all a level playing field when projecting what may happen in these races. 
  • Democratic incumbents in the toughest areas are pretty adaptable.  Many of these candidates survived Romney landslides in their districts, and impressively, the incumbents in the rural districts have higher approval ratings than the suburban Democratic incumbents.  And our regression analysis shows that member approval rating matters more in the Democratic districts – and matters as much as party identification in predicting the vote.
  • Democrats are better trusted on health care and women’s issues in these districts. Strong majorities support implementing and improving the health care reform law, including 60 percent of seniors and 63 percent of unmarried women.  Additionally, Planned Parenthood is very popular in these Democratic seats.
  • Like in the Republican battleground, seniors may be the story.  Democrats lead Republicans among seniors by 4 points and are statistically even among white seniors.

Republican battleground: members in most-competitive seats at least as weak as prior cycles

The Republicans overall are only winning in these 49 seats by 47 to 42 percent – the same result that they achieved in the first poll in 2007 when Democrats ultimately gained 21 seats.  Much more importantly, the race is dead even in the 24 seats that form the top tier (42 to 43 percent).  The 43 percent incumbent vote is equal to what we saw for endangered incumbents at this point in prior cycles.  (Graph 14)

  • Job approval.  The Republican members in the 49 districts have the highest disapproval compared to prior cycles; in the most competitive seats, net approval is lower than prior cycles. (Graph 17 and 18)
  • Vote to re-elect.  Almost half the voters in the most competitive 24 seats say they can’t vote to re-elect this named member of Congress – the highest in the top tier seats in prior cycles. (Graph 20)
  • Persuadable voters.  Democrats have 4 points more ‘winnable’ voters than the Republicans. (Graph 24)

This is all shaped by a partisan climate that puts a wind in the face of these incumbent Republicans, starting with the Tea Party. Last July, the Tea Party had a net negative thermometer rating of -12 points.  That has jumped to -22 points.  Half of voters in Republican districts now give the Tea Party a negative rating. Just a third of voters here give the Republican Party a positive rating, making this a very unlevel partisan playing field. (Graph 15)

  • President Obama’s favorability is 17 points higher than Speaker Boehner’s.
  • The Democratic Party’s favorability is 5 points higher than the Republican Party (38 to 33 percent) in these Republican districts.  

Republican battleground: big drop in voters wanting member to block Obama

In Tier 1, the most competitive Republican seats, almost 70 percent want their incumbent to work with President Obama, an increase of 15 points since last year. And across all of the Republican districts, almost two-thirds (64 percent) want their incumbents to work with President Obama to address our country’s problems, not stop him—an increase of 10 points and a net increase of 21 points since last July.

At the heart of the gridlock over the budget and sequestration is the Republican refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy.  By impressive margins, voters in these Republican districts want to vote for a Member of Congress who will ask the wealthy to pay a greater share of taxes to address our problems, invest in the middle class, and reduce the deficit.  Republicans’ “no-tax” stance is a growing minority position in their own districts. (Graph 34)

It’s no surprise, then, that when we ask voters what concerns them the most about the Republican Congress, they point first to siding with the rich and protecting big corporations instead of the middle class – but followed closely by concerns that the Republicans in the House are so uncompromising and determined to block Obama’s agenda.

It is pretty important that voters decisively believe it is Democrats, not Republicans, who put progress ahead of partisanship – particularly in Tier 1.  (Graph 31)

The Republican battleground: expands after attacked on the issues

When a party is gaining an edge, you can usually feel it in the reactions to their messages and attacks.  For example, we knew last summer that it would be hard to make further gains because our attacks did not shift the vote away from the Republican incumbents.  But this poll is different – and perhaps shows Democrats can gain traction and expand the battleground.

It shows a big shift toward Democrats after campaign attacks from both sides, including on health care.  Democrats go from 5 points down to 1 point ahead in the entire Republican battleground.  In the most competitive seats, Democrats gain a net 5 points and finish 4 points ahead.

Maybe even more important, the shift is bigger in the second tier of “reach” seats — Democrats gain a net 8 points and pull to a statistical tie.  That would change the equation for 2014.

The strongest Democratic attacks are up to 10 points stronger than the Republican ones – and the specific attacks are instructive. 

  • Democrats’ strongest attacks center on Republicans’ indifference to violence against women, exacerbating Washington gridlock, and turning Medicare into a voucher program and cutting benefits.  These are the strongest attacks among seniors, independents, women, and voters over 50. 
  • Republicans’ vote to eliminate the Violence Against Women Act raises serious doubts for 70 percent of voters; it raises very serious doubts for 40 percent of women, 43 percent of independent women, and 45 percent of seniors.  This attack raises very serious doubts for 46 percent of unmarried women.

Because seniors may have moved back from the Republicans because of the ‘entitlement debate,’ it is important to note the power of the attack on Medicare. At the end of the survey, seniors shift 12 points to the Democrats, as do independents.

Among the Rising American Electorate – the coalition of progressive voters who drove Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012 – and who dropped off in 2010 – 54 percent say Republicans’ refusal to even take a vote on requiring background checks after Sandy Hook raises very serious doubts (83 percent total serious doubts).  The Rising American Electorate shifts 11 points toward Democrats at the end of the survey.

The Republican battleground: repeal is costing Republicans

Republicans in Congress have voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 37 times, which may have contributed to voters’ preference for the Democrats’ approach to health care reform in the most competitive Republican districts (Graph 43).  And by 50 to 42 percent, voters say the law should be implemented rather than repealed.  Just 42 percent agree that “we should repeal the health care law.”  Even in the second tier of less competitive districts, as many voters want to see the law implemented as want to see it repealed.

This is hardly a wedge issue to get the election to break for the Republicans. Indeed, voting to repeal 37 times may well communicate hyper-partisanship and an uncompromising determination to block Obama.

We will send a memo separately on the health care issue, but we wanted to briefly highlight the strongest attacks:

·         Republicans giving insurance companies back the power to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, drop coverage if you become sick, and impose lifetime limits.Over two-thirds of seniors, unmarried women, and voters in suburban districts say this raises serious doubts about Republicans.

·         Republicans giving insurance companies the right again to discriminate against women.In the battleground, 61 percent say this raises serious doubts about Republicans (30 percent very serious doubts). 

·         Republicans voting 37 times to repeal the health care law, wasting time and money.  This attack raises serious doubts for 56 percent of voters and is impactful in regression analysis in driving support for the Democrats’ approach to health care reform.

The best attacks on Democrats center around the recent IRS scandal.  Two-thirds (65 percent) say putting the IRS in charge of your health care by giving them the power to collect penalties, taxes, and fines raises serious doubts (37 percent very serious doubts).

After hearing attacks on both sides, Democrats hold the edge in the most competitive seats on which party is better on health care.  In the Democratic seats, voters cement their preference for the Democrats’ approach to health care, gaining a 7-point advantage.

The Democratic battleground

While Democrats have considerable work to do to minimize their losses in the 31-seat Democratic battleground, there is good reason to believe they are in a better position than the Republicans.

Incumbents lead a generic Republican by 2 points, 44 to 42 percent, but that average is produced by a small number of seats where the Republicans currently have large leads.  In the seats from suburban areas, half the Democratic battleground, the Democratic incumbent has a sizable 9-point lead. And in the seats where Obama won in 2012 (which comprise over 70 percent of the battleground) the Democratic incumbent leads by 7 points (46 to 39 percent).  There are about 10 seats that are genuinely in the frontline. (Graphs 57 and 58)

The Democratic incumbents are electorally weaker than in 2012:  their 6-point margin in November is now 2 points in this poll.  But the pattern only underscores the main observations about the data. That drop is the understandable result of moving from a presidential to off-year electorate, while the Republicans lost 5 points of margin while moving from a more Democratic to a more Republican electorate.  Second and more importantly, incumbents in the suburban and Obama seats fully preserve their 2012 margin. 

The Republican and Tea Party brands are anathema in the Democratic seats – even more pronounced than in the Republican seats.  Warm feelings about the Democratic Party and the Democrats in Congress are 10 points higher than for the Republican Party and Republicans in Congress.  That is a big gap that will impact electoral prospects.  Over half the voters in these districts give negative ratings to Boehner and the Tea Party. (Graph 61)

Incumbents in rural seats, which comprise only about one-quarter of the Democratic battleground, are impressively adaptable.  Mitt Romney carried these seats; however, these Democratic incumbents have higher approval ratings (+16) than the suburban Democratic incumbents (+9). And our regression analysis shows that member approval rating matters more in the Democratic districts – and matters as much as party identification. (Graph 60)

Like in the Republican districts, the Democratic incumbents are running slightly ahead with seniors and are even with white voters over 50.  That is a game changer – if it holds up. (Graph 59)

Planned Parenthood is very popular in the Democratic battleground and many of the women’s attacks and messages prove very strong here.  While we will discuss the health care issue in a separate memo, it is hard to underestimate how strong messages from members speaking on the benefits for women in the health care law are:

We can’t go back to insurance companies calling the shots on women’s health. The health care reform law makes sure insurance companies can’t charge women higher premiums solely based on gender, and covers important preventive health care, such as mammograms, screenings for cervical cancer and other services.’

In these Democratic districts, voters favor implementing and improving the health care law by wide margins.  Indeed, members gain by focusing on improving the law, reducing costs to make health care more affordable for the middle class, and underscoring the law’s health benefits for women. Unlike 2010, Democrats have a chance to make gains on the health care issue – handled confidently and in the context of Republicans’ total focus on repeal. (Graph 66)

There is also the possibility that key groups—including unmarried women and Latinos who were critical to Democrats’ successes in 2012—will turn out to vote in bigger numbers.  That has only an upside for Democrats.  Unmarried women have pulled back initially, while Latinos may find a relevant agenda with the immigration debate.

In summary, there is room to consolidate and motivate the new progressive base and push swing voters, particularly seniors, and minimize losses in the Democratic battleground.

[1] This memo is based on a unique survey of 1,250 likely 2014 voters in the 80 most competitive Congressional districts in the country (750 interviews in 49 Republican-held battleground districts and 500 interviews in 31 Democratic-held battleground districts), conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Democracy Corps from June 6-12, 2013.  Some questions were asked only in Democratic-held or Republican-held seats.  For questions asked of all respondents, the margin of error = +/- 2.77% at 95% confidence. For questions asked just in Republican districts, the margin of error = +/- 3.58% at 95% confidence.  For questions asked in just Democratic districts, the margin of error = +/- 4.38% at 95% confidence.

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