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Poll numbers in 1994, a bad year for Democrats, don't bode well for them in 2010

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; A02

Is it deja vu all over again for Democrats?

Some neutral observers and senior strategists within the party have begun to believe that the national political environment is not only similar to what they saw in 1994 -- when Democrats lost control of the House and Senate -- but could in fact be worse by Election Day.

A quick look at the broadest atmospheric indicators designed to measure which way the national winds are blowing -- the generic ballot and presidential approval -- affirms the sense that the political environment looks every bit as gloomy for Democrats today as it did 16 years ago.

"President Obama's job [approval] number is likely to be as bad or worse than [Bill] Clinton's when November rolls around, the Democratic generic-ballot advantage of plus 12 to plus 15 in 2006 and 2008 is now completely gone, and conservatives are energized like 1994," said Stu Rothenberg, an independent political analyst and editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a well-read campaign tip sheet.

The generic ballot -- would you vote for an unnamed Democrat or an unnamed Republican? -- is either similar or worse for Democrats (depending on which poll you look at) than it was in 1994.

In an August 1994 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 49 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Democrat while 42 percent said they would back the Republican. Last month, 47 percent said they would support the Republican while 46 percent chose the Democrat.

The results were strikingly similar in several other national surveys. In an August 1994 Gallup poll, 46 percent said they would vote for the Democrat and an equal 46 percent said they would support the Republican. The most recent Gallup data give Republicans an edge of 50 percent to 43 percent over Democrats. A CNN/Opinion Research poll shows that in August 1994, Republicans had a generic-ballot lead of 46 percent to 44 percent, a margin similar to the numbers in CNN data, 48 percent to 45 percent, this month.

Presidential approval numbers paint a slightly more optimistic picture for Democrats. In mid-August 1994, Clinton's approval rating in Gallup polling stood at 39 percent; Obama is at 44 percent approval in Gallup's most recent weekly tracking poll. (By Election Day or slightly before it in 1994, Clinton's approval numbers had bumped back up to 46 percent.) In the Post-ABC survey, a similar trend is borne out: Clinton was at 44 percent approval in August 1994, and Obama is at 50 percent this month.

Combine the similarities between 1994 and 2010 on the generic ballot and presidential approval with a clear intensity gap between the Republican base (fired up to vote) and the Democratic base (less so), and Democratic strategists are worried that they are watching history repeat itself.

"Our losses occurred because Republican turnout was massive," said one senior party strategist deeply involved in the 1994 campaign. "The right was motivated in 1994, and while it would have seemed impossible to me then, it feels like the Republicans are much more motivated to participate in this election" than they were then.

Although few savvy Democratic strategists debate the difficulty of the national political environment, they do note that there are two important differences between the 1994 election and this one.

The first is the relative weakness of the Republican brand. In 1994, Republicans had been out of power in the House for four decades, and most voters had a limited sense of what a GOP House would be like. In 2010, the American public has fired Republicans -- in the House, Senate and White House -- twice in the past four years. And, in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, the GOP had its lowest favorability ratings ever. (We repeat: ever.)

Second, Democrats understand the building frustration and desire for change in a way that the party simply didn't get 16 years ago. "The one advantage Democrats have is early-warning radar that we are facing a tough environment, and many of our incumbents have geared up their campaigns much earlier than in 1994," said Fred Yang, a leading Democratic pollster. "The possible wave may be too big for any campaign, but we're going to be ready this time and run harder and more aggressive campaigns."

Yang's last point is the central question on which the comparison between 1994 and 2010 rests: Can well-run and well-funded campaigns by Democratic incumbents save them from being dragged out to sea politically? Democrats think so, Republicans hope not.

Charlie Cook, a political handicapper and editor of the Cook Political Report, acknowledged that every election has "its own set of unique characteristics and dynamics" but added that Democrats shouldn't take too much comfort in that. "Is 2010 the same as 1994? No, it isn't," he said. "But that doesn't mean that the outcome can't be roughly comparable."

Cook also noted that the state of the economy, which may have mitigated Democratic losses in 1994 with an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, almost certainly will exacerbate them this year, as unemployment now stands at 9.5 percent.

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