It's 2003 all over again.
In recent months, a number of polls released on the state of the 2009 and 2010 campaigns have made banner headlines for substantial Republican leads. In the fine print around paragraph five, however, it was revealed that among registered voters, the margin was considerably closer.
For polling junkies of a progressive persuasion, this was a neverending source of aggravation back in the day. That said, it was based on some fairly sound logic. Simple math teaches us that a proportion of registered voters rarely, if ever, vote. To the end, we also know that a couple of the most loyal voting blocs for the Democrats (young voters and African-Americans) are two of the voting blocs whose voter behavior are the most spotty.
That said, however, the likely voter screen has not always tilted reflexively Republican. In 2006, for example, the five CNN polls on the generic ballot test for Congress showed a slightly wider Democratic margin among likely voters (17.0%) than among registered voters (16.4%). The same was true with the four polls by Newsweek, where Democrats fared slightly better among likely voters (15.0%) than they did among registered voters (13.5%). In the interests of full disclosure, other pollsters maintained the traditional GOP advantage, even in a great Democratic year like 2006. Gallup, whose likely voter model has taken some criticism over the years, had the GOP faring about four points better with likely voters than they were among registered voters. In the most notable example of this effect, a mid-September Gallup poll had the Democrats leading by nine points among registered voters, but dead-even among likely voters.
This year, however, there have been some likely voter screens that have raised eyebrows. Take, for example, SurveyUSA's late July poll on the Virginia Governor's race. Cited by many as a sign of the ascendancy of the Republican Party (all three GOP statewide candidates had solid leads, ranging from 11-15 points), SurveyUSA gave away a critical hint about their 2009 likely voter screen. Amid the mountain of data (SurveyUSA has always been great about laying out all the stats), we see that the likely voters selected by SurveyUSA supported John McCain by a nine-point margin over Barack Obama in 2008. Of course, that's not close to what actually occurred in 2008--Barack Obama carried Virginia by a 53-46 margin.
Tom Jensen of PPP, whose likely voter screen was even more heavily tilted to the Republicans, offered an interesting explanation:
Let's say that 2 million people vote this fall, a slight uptick from 2005. Using the data from the poll that would mean 1,040,000 McCain voters and 820,000 Obama voters.
Now let's compare that to last fall. McCain received 1,725,005 votes. If 1,040,000 of those turn out this year that's equal to 60% of his voters. Obama received 1,959,532 votes. If 820,000 of those turn out this fall that's equal to 42% of his voters.
So there's basically an 18 point enthusiasm gap for turning out this fall between McCain voters and Obama voters at this point. Deeds probably needs to bring that down to about five by bringing out 55% of Obama's voters to win. The bad news is he's not there right now, the good news is he's got three months to get there.
What PPP and SurveyUSA are expecting is that the GOP, in the 2009 (and possibly, the 2010) cycles are going to be far more motivated to vote than Democrats.
On what basis do pollsters make that determination? We can make some assumptions based on what was already pointed out earlier--that some of the most inconsistent voting blocs tend to lean heavily to the left. As for other tea leaves, they are hard to come by: as Mark Blumenthal recently pointed out, pollsters are traditionally loath to open up about how they determine who is a likely voter and who is not.
And while there is certainly no shortage of anecdotal evidence to support the notions of a fired-up GOP base and a complacent/depressed Democratic base, polling evidence is less conclusive.
As addressed here on Daily Kos last Sunday, there does not seem to be any appreciable recovery in the Republican brand name this year (save for a slight bump in our own tracking poll over the last couple of weeks). It is hard to imagine a wholesale reversal of electoral fortunes in a climate where the minority party is viewed with such disregard.
Perhaps, as some pollsters seem to be implying, the GOP margin of victory is going to come from dramatically different voter behavior on the part of the respective bases of each party. The problem, there, is that there is at least some evidence that the base opinion of each party is still relatively even. Despite recent frustrations for Democrats vis-a-vis health care reform, our most recent tracking poll shows that the Democratic Party retains a slightly higher favorability rating among their own partisans (73%) than the Republican Party does with their own (68%).
To be certain, that gap has been wider in the recent past: an early June incarnation of the tracking poll had the gap at Democrats (84%) to Republicans (61%). So, in roughly three months, the gap between the support level from the party bases has gone from a Democratic advantage of 23 points down to a Democratic advantage of just five points.
The total elimination of that gap, or worse yet, a wholesale reversal of base support, could bring about the kind of dramatic shifts in voter behavior that the pollsters appear to be anticipating.
And therein might be the lesson for Democrats. It is apparent that pollsters and pundits are growing convinced that part of the rapidly hardening conventional wisdom regarding Democratic woes in 2009/10 is based upon a lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic base.
That ought to be something that Democrats consider as they contemplate negotiating away a vast array of progressive initiatives. If pollsters are already presuming that the GOP base is significantly more likely to turn out than the Democratic base, any such concessions should be approached with extreme caution.