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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Few “Generic” Notes on House Elections

As the 2010 political cycle kicks into high gear, it’s as good a time as any to stipulate some basic, but often misunderstood, facts about U.S. House elections.
For one thing, some of the adjectives being applied to possible GOP gains in the House this November–you know, “massive,” “overwhelming” or even “big”–can be misleading, in that they imply some sort of landslide or popular uprising. It’s important to remember that the entire U.S. House faces re-election every two years. And while it’s natural to focus on the fact that Democrats “picked up” 21 seats in the very good election year of 2008 (after gaining 31 net seats in 2006), and inferring that a Republican “pick-up” of 35 or 40 seats this year would represent a “massive” swing, gains and losses are cumulative. Democrats won a 79-seat margin in 2008. A Republican pickup of 40 votes would represent a relatively even election producing a dead-even House, not a “landslide.” A true Republican “landslide” would be defined as one in which the GOP picked up something more on the order of 70-80 seats, which would probably reflect a popular vote margin of around 10%–usually the most expansive definition of an electoral “landslide.”
Secondly, in terms of early predictions of what will happen in November House elections, the numbers usually touted are “generic congressional ballot” poll results. Right now Gallup shows the congressional ballot as even-steven. But there’s a widespread assumption that the generic ballot always, always overstates Democratic performance. While there is a slight bias factor (as pointed out by Nate Silver last week), probably attributable to less “efficient” Democratic vote distribution (or, to put it another way, to pro-Republican gerrymandering in the last redistricting cycle), much of the “overestimation” of Democratic strength in past generic polls has involved early tests with no “likely voter” screen. As we get closer to Election Day, the Gallup generic ballot is usually quite accurate (as shown some years ago by TDS contributor Alan Abramowitz of Emory). So it’s not a good idea to just mentally add a few points to Gallup’s number for the GOP and assume that’s close to reality.
Mark Blumenthal has a learned column up at National Journal on the whole subject of generic ballots; give that a look if you are interested.

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