Generic ballot poll results misleading

As we approach the finish line, it’s weird to me that anyone is still reporting the results of generic ballot questions: “Will you be voting for the Democrat or Republican running for Congress in your district?” Early on, when voters don’t know much about incumbent challengers or contestants in an open-seat race, the generic ballot serves a useful purpose for national reporters covering the larger political environment. But now it’s completely irrelevant. And more important, it’s very misleading.

As we approach the finish line, it’s weird to me that anyone is still reporting the results of generic ballot questions: “Will you be voting for the Democrat or Republican running for Congress in your district?” Early on, when voters don’t know much about incumbent challengers or contestants in an open-seat race, the generic ballot serves a useful purpose for national reporters covering the larger political environment. But now it’s completely irrelevant. And more important, it’s very misleading.

Consider the results of a congressional district poll done by our shop in the past seven days in an industrial Midwestern state. The generic ballot showed the Republican ahead by just 7 points, 42 percent to 35 percent. But later in the poll, when the actual names were read along with their partisan affiliation, the results were starkly different. This time the Republican won by a whopping 39-point margin, besting the Democrat 64 percent to 25 percent. Note that the actual Democrat received 10 fewer percentage points of support than his generic counterpart. Perhaps it would be best that Democrats petition to have their candidates’ real names replaced with “Generic Democrat.”

But the media polls keep pushing generic ballot results as a guide to control of Congress. That Democrats seem to be widely winning the generic contest makes the storyline irresistible to some, but it’s likely to disappoint Nov. 7.

A key reason that the generic doesn’t predict to real results is that there isn’t any face of the generic Republican anymore. Ironically, the weak and lackadaisical leadership of Congressional Republicans has meant that there is no particular Republican to be mad at. There’s no Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay to demonize as you choose between party nominees in your district. In fact, the rapid resignation of former Rep. DeLay (R-Texas) may, in retrospect, be the essential ingredient in Republican survival. Otherwise, he would have been the lightning rod that Tom Foley became during the 1994 election. Perhaps sensing that he could become another Foley, rejected by his own district and reviled in hundreds of others, DeLay bailed. Good call.

Look at the real Congressional Republican leaders and you see that there’s no one there to hate. According to CNN polling in early October, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) both had unfavorable ratings of just 36 percent nationwide. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) is so “under the radar” that I couldn’t find a single nationwide poll that even measured his negatives. By comparison, DeLay routinely earned negative ratings 10 to 15 percentage points higher than Frist or Hastert today.

The same facelessness problem occurs for Democrats, though not to the same extent. In the same CNN October poll that measured Republican images, only 26 percent of Americans rated Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) negatively. Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) unfavorable rating was even lower, only 23 percent. These numbers are so low that attacking Republicans are often forced to make Hillary Clinton or Ted Kennedy the face of the Democratic Party in order to gain any traction. The real Democratic leadership is only a faint shadow of the “good ole days” when we had Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, Tom Foley and Jim Wright to rail against.

If media pollsters want to ask a generic ballot to predict to actual outcomes, I’m convinced that a better way to ask the question would be: Will you be voting against either the Democrats or Republicans in the upcoming Congressional elections? If they say yes, I’d ask which Congressional Republican or Democrat they most dislike. If they can name an actual national party leader, their generic angst may carry over into their actual voting. If not, their answers are no more than a vague reflection of some political zeitgeist, not a solid guide to their likely vote between two local candidates.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.

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