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Vote for Us — We Aren’t Nearly as Bad as the Other Guys!

Next year’s elections are starting to look like a choice between bad and worse, if we are to believe the most recent batch of polling data, including the consistently reliable NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

[IMGCAP(1)]The Sept. 17-20 survey, conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart of Hart Research Associates and Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, shows President Barack Obama’s job approval at 51 percent, down 10 points from April.

Congress’ job approval, in contrast, has fallen by only 6 points over the same time. But of course, Members of Congress shouldn’t take anything positive from that. With an approval rating of 22 percent in the most recent survey, they don’t have much further to fall.

The two worst bits of news for Democrats are the narrowing of the Democratic advantage on respondents’ preferences for next year’s elections and the dip in the Democratic Party’s ratings.

In October of last year, 49 percent of registered voters polled said they wanted a Democratic-controlled Congress, while only 36 percent said they preferred a Republican-controlled Congress. That’s a hefty 13-point Democratic advantage.

The September poll, however, has the Democratic edge down to 3 points — 43 percent to 40 percent over the GOP.

It’s worth noting that the wording of the question used by the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll to measure voters’ partisan preferences in the next election differs from that used in many (probably most) other surveys.

Most pollsters (including recent surveys by Bloomberg, Franklin & Marshall and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Democracy Corps) use a variation of the Gallup generic question — “If the elections for Congress were being held today, which party’s candidate would you vote for in your Congressional district — the Democratic Party’s candidate or the Republican Party’s candidate?—

That’s not an unreasonable wording, but Peter Hart prefers the question as posed in his NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll to measure generic preference: “What is your preference for the outcome of next year’s Congressional elections — a Congress controlled by Republicans or a Congress controlled by Democrats?—

“We had two different questions [to measure generic sentiment] in our 1994 September and October surveys,— Hart, whose extensive work in political polling undoubtedly makes him one of the nation’s most accomplished and respected pollsters, told me in a recent interview. “We found out that the [traditional] generic ballot question didn’t help us see what was coming. [The question we now use] gave us better insight into what happened.—

Hart speculates that since some respondents know the name and party of their incumbent Member of Congress, they insert that name mentally into the question being asked, thereby altering the intended purely “generic— nature of the question.

The decline in the percentage of voters who want Democrats controlling Congress is worrisome for Democratic strategists because the public’s image of the party has also eroded.

In February, 49 percent of respondents had very or somewhat positive feelings toward the Democratic Party, while 31 percent had somewhat or very negative feelings toward it.

In September, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found only 41 percent with very or somewhat positive feelings and an almost equal 39 percent with very or somewhat negative feelings.

You might assume that the GOP has benefited from this Democratic decline. Don’t. The Republican Party’s image has improved so little since February that it might as well as have not improved at all.

In February, 26 percent of respondents had a very or somewhat favorable view of the Republican Party, and in September, that number had inched up to 28 percent. Meanwhile, the party’s combined negatives fell from 47 percent to a still far-too-high 43 percent.

Republicans argue that the midterm elections will be a referendum on Obama and on Democratic control of Congress, so the public’s attitude toward the Democrats is far more important than how they feel about the GOP.

While I certainly agree with the direction of that assessment, it’s unwise to dismiss the low GOP numbers cavalierly.

Negative ratings as high as the Republican Party is now carrying give Democratic candidates and campaign committees an opportunity to demonize GOP candidates, possibly limiting the damage to Democrats in the midterms.

In October 2006, NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling showed the Democratic Party with only a net +4 in image (39 percent positive/35 percent negative) among registered voters, while the GOP’s was -13 (35 percent positive/48 percent negative). Democrats gained 30 House seats.

Two years later, in October 2008, the net Democratic advantage among registered voters was a mere single point (39 percent positive/38 percent negative), while the Republican Party’s image was far worse, a net of -17 (31 percent positive/48 percent negative). Democrats gained 20 more seats.

Of course, it’s certainly important to note that both elections were “about— George W. Bush and the Republican Party, and that even if the GOP’s image remains upside down (higher negatives than positives), the party is likely to gain House seats next year.

It is difficult for the Republican Party to improve its image right now, but the party surely will need a far more favorably inclined public before it crawls entirely out of the deep hole that it now is in. Some new spokesmen might be a start.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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