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Why the GOP’s House majority isn’t safe

at 06:30 AM ET, 05/31/2012

Two Democratic polls out in recent weeks show Republican incumbents in the most competitive congressional districts are in a weaker position than their Democratic colleagues.
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) speaks at the Mae Volen Senior Center in Boca Raton, Fla., in this file image from August 12, 2011. West is one of many freshman Republicans in tough districts — a fact that could make 2012 tough on the GOP. (Reuters/Doug Murray/Files)

A Democracy Corps poll released last month showed Republican incumbents in 56 targeted districts with significantly weaker political brands than Democratic incumbents in 23 of their most vulnerable districts.

The GOP incumbents had an average approval rating of 41 percent and disapproval of 33 percent – including a nearly even 37/36 split in the 28 most vulnerable Republican districts.

Democratic incumbents, meanwhile, had the approval of 50 percent of their constituents, versus 26 percent who disapproved.

Another Democratic poll of battleground House districts obtained by The Fix on Wednesday, from Democratic pollster Garin Hart Yang, backs up that data. In 58 districts targeted by either party, Democratic incumbents led in their districts by an average of 52 percent to 33 percent, while GOP incumbents led 45 percent to 39 percent for their seats.

This data comes with a few caveats.

One is that, as we qualified above, these are Democratic polls. Though they are from some of the most respected Democratic pollsters in the game, Republicans would probably take issue with some of the methodology, which may reflect a better turnout model for Democrats. (See: the Wisconsin recall.)

Second, redistricting has complicated the polling in some of these districts, and many districts were only poll-able (if that’s word) under their old lines rather than their new ones. This may have hurt Republicans, who had much more control over redistricting than Democrats and were able to shore up many of their most vulnerable members, at least by a point or two.

Overall, though, the picture is one of a Congress in which Republican incumbents in competitive districts look to be more vulnerable to their Democratic counterparts.

This is a result of at least a few factors.

One is that Republicans are coming off huge gains in 2010, and thus they inhabit most of the most competitive districts. That means their constituents will naturally be tougher to please.

Along those same lines, many of the most vulnerable Democrats are longtime incumbents, while most of the most vulnerable Republicans are freshmen. Those Democrats, in addition to having the fortitude to survive a disastrous 2010, have built their political brands over multiple terms in Congress – an opportunity that has simply not been afforded to GOP freshmen.

“Republicans are the ones who now represent swing districts, so they’re not just getting rave reviews from their base; they’re also getting mediocre reviews from independents,” said GOP pollster Jon McHenry. “Democrats have been largely beaten back to their core constituencies, so their numbers come primarily from base supporters.”

We saw the reverse of this trend in the same Democracy Corp polling in 2010, when many of the most vulnerable Democrats were freshmen or second-term members that came into Congress in the twin Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008.

At that point, the more-experienced GOP incumbents in tough districts were rated positively by 41 percent of their constituents, versus 30 percent negatively. For Democratic incumbents, the split was significantly worse: 32 percent positive and 36 percent negative.

In other words, it’s not necessarily the fault of these Republican incumbents. In a lot of ways, it’s the natural order.

Democratic pollster Jef Pollock, though, says it has a lot to do with the tea party as well.

“It doesn’t help that in some of these districts where tea party candidates won, the tea party is perceived poorly,” Pollock said. “The voters have sipped their brand of tea and it hasn’t tasted particularly good.”

Even when you look at the so-called “second tier” of targeted GOP incumbents – the 28 districts in the poll that are somewhat safer than those in the first tier and may be more analogous to the Democratic-held districts – they have slightly worse numbers than the most vulnerable Democrats.

Those Republicans have a 44 percent approval rating and 30 percent disapproval, compared to the Democrats’ 50/26 split. That suggests even they may be in more trouble than the most vulnerable Democrats.

Whatever the reasons, though, it’s clear that not all incumbents are on the same footing.

If a wave somehow crashes against the Republicans in 2012, the effects – as they were in 2010 for Democrats – could be exaggerated both by the tough districts they represent and by a relatively inexperienced class of young members who are less entrenched than their Democratic counterparts.

That’s got to be part of what House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was thinking recently when he said there was a one-in-three chance Democrats could reclaim the House this year; these freshmen need plenty of help.

They do have some environmental data points working in their favor, though, even in the Democratic polls. GOP strategists point in the Democracy Corps poll to President Obama’s middling brand in these districts, the GOP’s advantage on the issue of the economy, and the fact that the GOP incumbents are still, on average, ahead by several points. And environment is certainly the biggest part of the reelection equation.

But in a neutral or slightly tilted environment, it’s clear Republicans are more susceptible to losses in the House than Democrats.

Axelrod to target Romney: Top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod will hold a press conference today taking on Mitt Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts — particularly when it comes to the economy.

The idea is to highlight promises Romney made as governor that he failed to live up to -- a theme Republicans have attempted to use against Obama, including in an ad currently being run by the super PAC American Crossroads.

Axelrod will be joined by officials from Massachusetts who can speak to Romney’s tenure there, and the Obama campaign will also be releasing a web video.

Romney evens the score on favorability: Favorability, which has long been a hallmark of President Obama’s political brand, is no longer an asset for him in the 2012 presidential campaign.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Romney’s image has improved measurably in recent weeks, and he’s now viewed favorably and unfavorably by 44 percent of registered voters.

That’s basically the same split Obama gets. The president’s favorable rating (49 percent) is now just one point higher than his unfavorable rating (48 percent).

It’s a pretty big shift. Just a month ago, Obama’s split was 54/43, while Romney’s was 40/48.

Fixbits:

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) raises his hand in the veepstakes.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), after saying he wouldn’t back a Senate candidate in the state’s open Senate primary, has endorsed Elizabeth Warren. The move comes on the eve of a state party convention in which Democrats are worried another candidate will take a significant chunk of the vote and qualify for the primary.

A double-dose of bad news for Pete Hoekstra. First the birther stuff, and now he trails Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) by 16 points in a new poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) stumps for another businessman running for Senate, Missouri’s John Brunner (R).

The Sunlight Foundation is doing all of us a major favor and archiving politicians’ deleted tweets.

Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) releases an internal poll showing him leading by 16 points in a district Democrats are counting on winning.

Must-reads:

Mythical Backlashes and Specious Explanations” — Paul Waldman, The American Prospect

As governor, Mitt Romney backtracked on promised reforms in appointing judges” — Jerry Markon and Alice Crites, Washington Post

Are We Headed for Another Electoral Mess?” — Stuart Rothenberg, Roll Call

Texas Latinos poised for no House gains despite population boom, new districts” — Paul Kane, Washington Post

 
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