Outlook: Five myths about midterm elections

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Alan Abramowitz
Monday, August 16, 2010; 11:00 AM

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Alan Abramowitz: Hi, Alan Abramowitz here to discuss my Outlook article from yesterday on midterm elections.

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Generic congressional ballot: Republicans are crowing that they lead in the generic congressional ballot preference by 4-6 percent and also claim it actually overstates Democratic strength. How well does this metric predict congressional election outcomes? It seems to have been accurate in '06 and '08. If the current trend doesn't change, should Democrats plan on being in the minority in the House next year?

Alan Abramowitz: In general, all of these point to large Republican gains--possibly large enough to regain control of the House, although probably not the Senate where 10 seats is a big hill to climb.

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Winning Independents v. Mobilizing the Base: To what extent is success in the midterms about winning independents, centrists, or what have you, and to what extent is it about turning out the people who are already on your side?

Alan Abramowitz:

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The Real Reason Incumbents Stay:: "But even when voters seem very unhappy, the vast majority of incumbents in both parties are reelected. Despite Congress' low approval ratings this year, only a handful of incumbents have lost their primaries, and there were peculiar reasons for several of those defeats." Left out of your analysis is how many congressional districts have been gerrymandered, in occasionally preposterous fashions, to eliminate any hint of actual political competition. We routinely hear about "safe districts" in political wonkery; there should never be such a thing. In some districts, you could run a murderer, child molester or dead crab, and s/he would win as long as it has the proper letter after its name on the ballot. It would be nice to think that the "Tea Party" and other anti-incumbency movements could move past such thinking this time around, but history shows the odds are against them no matter how many congress-persons are under ethics investigations, indictments, or criminal proceedings. I mean, we're in a city that elected a convicted felon back to the mayor's office!

Alan Abramowitz: Even states have become less competitive overall.

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Gallup congressional poll: What are the current Gallup congressional poll numbers and what do they tell us about the midterms"?

Alan Abramowitz:

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Are all elections "local?" : In Illinois, we've managed to find public housing for most of our previous governors (we'll see today about Blago). Despite record high convictions, it seems as though the powers that be manage to remain in power. We don't throw out the villains, we keep incumbents in power, and we keep voting for those approved by the party leaders. What could it take to actually push some of the incumbents out? War? We've occupied Afghanistan far longer than Vietnam. The Economy? Jimmy Carter's recession was deeper, tougher, and coupled with gas-free weekdays. Corruption? The House Post Office scandal touched a few congresscritters, but most skated. The question is this: Is there any current national issue that you believe will have a major adverse impact on this election, for either party?

Alan Abramowitz: The incumbents who lose in November will be almost exclusively Democrats--just as the ones who lost in 2006 were exclusively Republicans.

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Impact of Tea Party: What's your take on the mid-term impact of the Tea Pary? Helpful to GOP in raising anger/enthusiasm; helpful to Dems in giving victory to fringe GOP primary candidates; or maybe both? Also seems this could be part of 2010 narrative that is ultimately helpful to Obama in 2012, making nomination of more centrist GOP pres candidate less likely.

Alan Abramowitz:

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you (and Saunders) v. Fiorina (and Abrams & Pope) on polarization...: I'd like to hear your thoughts about how different scholars conceptualize polarization in the mass electorate--and where you come down on thinking about it. It seems to me that there is consensus out there about elite polarization, but how does that work causally with what we see in the mass electorate--is it elite polarization-->mass polarization or vice versa? Aren't there still a bunch of moderate independents out there keeping us sane?

Alan Abramowitz:

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Collaborating: Good to have some perspective on midterms! I was wondering, professor - how did you and Mr. Ornstein come to collaborate on this article? And what was your process for working together?

Alan Abramowitz: It was a pleasure working with Norm.

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Polls & Pols: News organizations, politicians and political pundits are mesmerized with political polls, especially for contested elections. Reporters and pundits delight in reporting a tight horse race or abruptly changing poll results. However, political polls cannot predict future events reliably because they don't meet the prerequisites for valid statistical inference. For reliable error margins, statistical inference theory requires stable populations or sampling environments from which multiple samples are drawn over time. Also respondents must be selected randomly with each possible opinion in the population equally available to be sampled. It's doubtful these requirements exist in today's political polling. Political polling's dirty secrets would be revealed if poll designs and error margin calculation methods were published. Yet, news organizations, political parties and politicians spend millions on political polling when voter turn-out often is the decisive factor (which can be predicted spending far less). Other than producing dazzling graphics, is it a case of the blind following the blind or is there nothing better to do with political contributions and news budgets?

Alan Abramowitz: As long as media outlets think their viewers and readers want to know about the horse race, we're going to see more and more dubious polls.

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IF THE ELECTION WERE HELD TODAY: What would your forecast be of Republican gains in the Congress and the governors races? Also; do you think the governors races are being somewhat overlooked?

Alan Abramowitz: That could change in the next few weeks although I don't expect to see any big changes.

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Enthusiasm Gap: Prof. Abramowitz, thanks for taking questions today. We keep hearing that this administration has actually accomplished a great deal legislatively during the first half of Obama's term. Why isn't he -- and by extension the Democratic Party -- getting more credit for that? With the Republicans tied or even leading in the generic matchups, that doesn't seem to be reflected. Do voters have any expectations for what they hope will happen if the Republicans retake the House and perhaps the Senate, or don't they think that far ahead?

Alan Abramowitz: Most voters would probably want to see Republicans work cooperatively with the White House after the election if they get control of one or both chambers, but that's not likely to happen--the ideological divide between the parties is just too wide.

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Independent voters?: How many voters who say they are independent really independent? My wife insists on calling herself independent but would never vote for anyone in the GOP. So how many true "fence sitters" are there?

Alan Abramowitz: Most independents are leaners--they usually favor one party and their beliefs and behavior are almost indistinguishable from those of other partisans.

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Polarization: So is there an answer? It's my belief that the more the country "balkanizes" into "safe" districts where there's no chance of a candidate with the wrong letter after the name being elected, the less the government will be held accountable or expect to be held accountable, which in the long run will increase the polarization even more. The country needs its politicians to live in fear of constituents being ready to hoist their heads on a pitchfork (metaphorically, not literally--though a little fear is always good), but the more we polarize, the less likely this becomes.

Alan Abramowitz:

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RE: Your Response to Polls & Pols: if elections were held today misrepresents what polls actually are -- the views of the 300-1000 individuals who happen to respond to questions many of which are unartful. On the other hand, how people vote behind curtains may be quite different than how they respond to pollsters. Otherwise, likely there would have been a California Governor Tom Bradley.

Alan Abramowitz: I look at the average of all of the reputable polls--excluding blatatly partisan ones.

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Sharia on the ballot: Will this election really be a referendum on the Ground Zero Mosque? Is it fair to say that Sharia law is on the ballot now?

Alan Abramowitz: No and no.

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Citizens United: Will the Citizens Unitedruling give either party a boost this year? if so; who benefits more?

Alan Abramowitz:

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Georgia Contests: Do you see any U.S. House incumbents in Georgia vulnerable this year? Republicans are making noises about taking Jim Marshall's Macon-centered district (which backed McCain in 2008) and even the 47 percent black southwest Georgia 2nd District of Sanford Bishop

Alan Abramowitz:

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Woburn, MA: Why do all the articles about how incumbents hold their jobs ignore one of the basic facts? With divergence of political positions of the two parties, if you have a moderate to liberal Democratic congressperson, unless the incumbent loses the primary, you would have to radically shift what you believe in (assuming you were a Democrat) to vote for his opponent. For me, that is a far, far bigger factor than any other factor. I cannot imagine being upset enough with my Democratic congressman (who I like, but that is beside the point) to vote for the conservative Republican challenger. I assume the same is true for Republicans, so why isn't that factor considered the most important?

Alan Abramowitz:

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safe districts: What's astonishing to me is that since these people get re-elected 98 percent of the time -- they are STILL so freaked out and afraid of losing their seats. Why is that? Common sense would say that they could basically do what they want (and they do - with regards to ethics violations) and still get re-elected. So one would hope that they would have a little more leadership to vote how they think they should vote, rather than voting how they think would help them get re-elected...it's absurdity at its best.

Alan Abramowitz: They're the ones who are vulnerable in a tough year.

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Party of No?: Good morning, Dr. Abramowitz. Former student here (William and Mary, 1976). Democrats will be hammering away on the Republicans' lack of an agenda from now till November, and Republicans seem keen to oblige them by saying "no" to what Democrats want and little else. That might not be hurting the Republicans now, but is there a chance that it could hurt them (particularly with independents) by November?

Alan Abramowitz:

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larry sabato: I love your articles on Larry Sabato's weekly newsletters; do you have a newsletter of your own? a Web site?

Alan Abramowitz: And it's a great source of political intelligence.

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RE: Your Response to Polls and Pols: Care to mention a few blatatly partisan polls?

Alan Abramowitz: The LV screen is really crucial in a midterm election.

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safe districts: on your staff. Which most of us can't afford...

Alan Abramowitz:

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Age groups and the disappearing political center: I am interested in your idea of the disappearing center. I am particulary interested in the generational split that I see, and if I am viewing this correctly. The younger voters tend to be more liberal, in fact the appear by far more "pro-government response to solving problems" in polls than other age groups. The older voters appear to be more anti-tax, less government. Thus, I see politics is often a battle between the more conservative older voters whose numbers are dwindling but they vote in higher percentages of their group than other age groups, versus more liberal younger voters whose numbers are increasing but they vote in smaller percentages of their group than do other age groups. How close or off are these observations?

Alan Abramowitz: In a midterm election, though, younger voters don't turn out as much as older voters--their share of the electorate will be down from 2008 and that's going to hurt Democrats.

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Celebrate Ignorance: There are politicians within the GOP (Sarah Palin, for example) who seem to celebrate ignorance or perhaps she and others could be said to be defaming the educated. Does this kind of politics make the educated GOP uncomfortable (people like Mitch Daniels comes to mind) or are they happy just to use that as a way to get votes?

Alan Abramowitz: We may see internal GOP divisions open up more in 2012.

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Cook,Rothenberg, Sabato, etc.: Do any of these have a better track record than the others?

Alan Abramowitz: But they're all pretty good and they're all pretty much in agreement right now about 2010.


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