Suppose a pollster calls you up and asks you who you’d rather vote for: Your member of Congress, or his or her challenger in November? Most people would have trouble answering that question because they don’t know who their member of Congress is.
Now suppose a pollster calls you up and asks you this instead: Which party would you rather serve you in Congress, a Democrat or a Republican? Or even this question: Which party do you want to control Congress in November, Republicans or Democrats?
Most people would be able to answer those without any frantic Googling. It’s a good gut-check question, and that’s why pollsters ask the bland-yet-appropriately-named “generic ballot” question about congressional races. And it’s why we’re going to talk about them today.
Generic ballot questions are generally a good indicator of how Americans feel about any given party at any given moment. And because most people vote for their member of Congress based on party, generic ballot questions are also helpful data points to game out which party is going to control the House of Representatives in January.
There’s no one magic number, and generic balloting isn’t perfect at predicting wins, but history suggests Democrats need to have a much bigger lead (6 to 7 points) in this question than Republicans (3-ish points) to win a majority in the House. And despite the fact that Donald Trump’s wobbling campaign has opened the door a crack for House Democrats, generic balloting from this past weekend suggest Americans aren’t all that keen about having a Democratic Congress.
Three points for Democrats is a small margin that can basically be read as flat. Democrats tend to have a 2-3 point advantage for the simple reason there are slightly more Democrats than Republicans in the country, says Stu Rothenberg, a political House handicapper and Washington Post columnist. That doesn’t mean all of those Democratic voters will cast ballots — and historically, GOP voters are more likely to turn out. As The Fix’s Aaron Blake notes, the fact that generic ballot polling is in such a small margin is good news for House Republicans.
It’s when Democrats have a six or seven point lead that they can start getting excited/Republicans can start to worry, Rothenberg says.
As recently as a week ago, it seemed there was reason for both: An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken in the days after Trump’s 2005 tape leaked found Democrats had a 7-point margin in this generic ballot question. Since the tape came out, Republican operatives have tracked an average 4-point drop in support for Republicans in competitive districts.
But things can change quickly. And generic balloting is not the be-all, end-all polling question for which party is going to control the House. (Unfortunately, no such question exists.)
Since we’re all about trying to game out Nov. 8 before Nov. 8, let’s delve into what recent history can tell us.
- In 2008, Democrats went into Election Day with a 9-point advantage among likely voters in the generic ballot question, according to the RealClearPolitics average of this question. They netted 21 seats and expanded their majority.
- In 2010, Republicans had a 9+-point advantage in the generic ballot question. And the Republican Party won 63 seats and the majority.
- In 2012, the generic ballot question was basically tied, and Republicans lost eight House seats while GOP nominee Mitt Romney lost by four points.
- In 2014, Republicans had a two-point advantage, and they netted 13 seats.
In 2016, generic ballot polling in recent weeks has shown Democrats with a 10, then 7, now 3 point advantage. If Democrats’ margin holds at three on “Which party do you want to represent you in Congress?”, it suggests that even in a world where the Republican GOP nominee is incredibly unpopular, Americans aren’t necessarily thrilled about the idea of a Democratic Congress.