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That Pollster Who Promises a Democratic Landslide Has a Track Record

Democrats are getting excited about retaking the House. It’s certainly possible, but there’s a long list of reasons for Democrats to be pessimistic, including gerrymandering, weak recruits and strong GOP incumbents, an off year electorate, and the history of 1996. The polls don't show a larger backlash than 1996, either. This is the conclusion of most of the “numbers-friendly” election analysts, along with the House prognosticators at Cook, The Crystal Ball, or The Rothenberg Political Report. And as far as I’m aware, there’s only one piece of counter-veiling evidence: A recent poll from PPP/MoveOn, showing Republicans trailing generic Democrats in 17 House districts—enough to retake the chamber.

But there’s a huge problem with the PPP survey: It pits named Republican incumbents against generic Democrats. In many of these districts, Democrats don’t have challengers capable of taking advantage of whatever favorable conditions may exist. Even if the Democrats do recruit decent challengers, they still might not do as well as a generic Democrat. And the preponderance of undecided voters supported Romney and their incumbent congressperson last November, so there’s good reason to assume that Republicans will consolidate their support in the absence of a strong challenger.

But don’t take my word on it. Even PPP’s Tom Jensen conceded to Blumnenthal that: “Often times a generic opponent is stronger than who actually ends up being the candidate.” And if you need any proof, check out these charts from Mark Blumenthal of The Huffington Post. PPP conducted similar surveys in late 2011 and early 2012, with headlines like “Polling Shows Democrats Can Take Back The House In 2012.” But rather than presage a Democratic landslide, PPP’s generic ballot question systematically underestimated the Republican candidate. Republicans finished better than PPP expected in 18 of the 20 districts, often by a double-digit margin.

It’s tempting to look at the chart and say, “but Democrats did win nine of those 20 seats, so if Democrats do as well among the 24 seats polled by PPP last weekend, they’re within striking distance of the House.” But almost all of the seats where PPP was “right” about Democratic gains—where PPP found the generic Democrat ahead and the actual Democrat eventually won—were seats where Democrats were already expected to be competitive or even win. Eight of the nine seats that PPP got “right” were characterized as “toss-up” or “lean Democratic” by The Crystal Ball in October 2011.

The problem for Democrats in 2014 is that there aren’t nearly as many districts where Democrats look well positioned. According to the Crystal Ball today, there are only two Republican-held “toss-up” districts; there is only one that “leans Democratic.” To take the House, Democrats will need to win at least 14 districts where Republicans are currently favored. And this is where it becomes obvious that PPP’s survey offers little hope to Democrats: Of the eleven seats where PPP polled and the Republican was favored in October 2011, Democrats would eventually only win one; PPP would get the outcome wrong in eight, by an average of 11.1 points. A similar showing would leave Democrats far, far short of control of the House.

So imagine my surprise when I read a piece from Sam Wang, a Princeton neuroscientist writing in The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, about how the PPP poll meant Democrats were on pace to gain 30 seats in the House. Honestly, I nearly spit coffee all over my computer. Wang took the PPP survey and calculated that the Republican was doing about 10.9 points worse than they did last November, and therefore assumed that Democrats would win the House popular vote by 12 points and gain about 30 seats. Wang clearly didn’t know that pitting a generic Democrat against a named incumbent was a weak predictor of the actual outcome. But you’d think there would still be plenty of skepticism of an apple-to-oranges comparison without figuring out the relationship between the results and a hypothetical generic test against Democrats. And Wang didn’t offer a single caveat, which might have partially excused Wang’s decision to proceed with a flawed approach.

If the Democrats are going to take back the House, it will require recruiting real, actual, un-generic candidates to take on Republicans in competitive districts. So far, Democrats don’t have many. But that that could be changing. Greg Sargent reports that Steve Israel, the DCCC chairman, is getting giddy about possible new recruits after the government shutdown. If true, that’s a big deal. It would be an even bigger deal if Steve Israel is growing an army of faceless, generic Democrats in the 50 most competitive House seats. I'm not betting on it.

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