The Washington Post

Democrats lead the generic ballot by 8. That’s not enough to win the majority

The Republican Party is in trouble. A new Washington Post/ABC News survey shows just 32 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of the GOP, while 63 percent see Republicans in an unfavorable light. More than half of Americans, 53 percent, say Republicans in Congress were mainly responsible for the government shutdown, while just 29 percent pin the blame on President Obama.

And by an 11-point margin, Americans say they will vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress rather than for a Republican.

But given the challenges Democrats face and the heavily gerrymandered districts that work to protect incumbent members of Congress, it would take a political wave to unseat the House Republican majority. And at the moment, the Democratic advantage isn’t large enough to suggest that a wave is building.

Let’s take a look at the Democratic advantage: Democrats lead the generic congressional ballot by 11 points among all adults, 49 percent to 38 percent. Among registered voters, that advantage shrinks to an 8-point gap, 48 percent to 40 percent.

They’re ahead by 11 points among independent voters too:

Democrats lead among men by 4 points, 44 to 40 percent:

And among women by a whopping 16-point margin:

By way of contrast, the last time Democrats reclaimed control of the House, in 2006, exit polls showed Democratic House candidates had a three-point edge among men and a 12-point advantage among women.


The nature of the modern Democratic coalition means Democrats need to win a much larger share of the total ballots cast to win the 218 seats needed to control the House of Representatives. That’s because Democrats rely heavily on voters in urban cores, where they’re packed together. Less dense suburban and exurban areas tend to split their votes more evenly, but the fact that they are more spread out makes those areas more susceptible to partisan map-making.

Consider 2012: Democratic House candidates won 1.17 million more votes than Republicans did, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, but they won just 201 House seats. That’s 50.6 percent of the two-party vote, but just 46.2 percent of the seats. Democratic voters, in other words, are much more likely to reside in heavily Democratic districts, while Republican voters are more spread out; there are many more Democratic incumbents who win with 80 percent of the vote or more than Republicans who win with 80 percent or more.

History bears this out in the form of the generic ballot. When Democrats have had an advantage of more than 10 points in the last Washington Post survey before Election Day, they have always picked up seats — 26 in 1982, two in 1988, seven in 1990 and 31 in 2006. But when their advantage falls below double digits, Democrats usually lose seats. Democrats held a  five-point edge in the final surveys before election days in 1994 and 2010; Republicans retook control of Congress in both elections.

Here’s the historical look at our surveys since 1982:

The Pew Research Center has asked generic ballot questions before every election since 1994. Their numbers tell largely the same story: When Democrats have an advantage of more than  seven points, they pick up seats (with the lone exception of 2004, when Pew asked its last generic ballot question in June, five months before Election Day). Democrats picked up 21 seats in 2006, when the generic ballot favored them by eight points, and 31 seats in 2008, when they held a 15-point edge over Republicans.

But the GOP won big when the Democratic advantage was just one point, in 2010, and when Republicans led the generic ballot by two points just before 1994.

Here’s Pew’s generic ballot, from 1994 to today:

Last week, Pew gave Democrats a 49 percent to 43 percent edge on the generic ballot. The last time Democrats had a six point edge, just before Election Day in 2000, they picked up a grand total of one seat.

This cycle, Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to recapture the majority.

Democrats will crow that Republicans are deeply unpopular, and the polls show they’re correct. But judging by the history of the generic ballot, the GOP’s majority isn’t in mortal danger just yet.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

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Show Comments
The Post's Philip Bump says ...
Since he proclaimed that he'd win New Hampshire last summer, Bernie Sanders has seen a swing of about 50 points in his direction. Impressive. But not as impressive as the guy on the other side of the political aisle. Donald Trump has led the Republican field in New Hampshire for almost 200 days, and has held a lead in 51 straight live-caller polls -- every poll stretching back to last July.
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