Is the House GOP’s Ace in the Hole Really a Deuce?

Posted October 19, 2005 at 3:00pm

This week’s CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll numbers aren’t startling because they weren’t different from others we’ve seen recently. The president’s job ratings are bad. Congress’ job rating is low. A majority of Americans think the country is headed off on the wrong track. [IMGCAP(1)]

But while National Republican Congressional Committee operatives have acknowledged the national mood is sour, they gamely argue that their incumbents are in much better shape than you might think.

“While generic polls have value, polls that gauge the likelihood of voters to vote to re-elect their own Member of Congress are far more meaningful,” two NRCC communications staffers wrote in a mid-October memo.

The NRCC memo noted a September Pew Research Center poll that asked, “Would you like to see your representative in Congress re-elected in the next congressional election, or not?” found 57 percent saying they favored re-election. Only 25 percent opposed their representative’s re-election.

Well, I’m not convinced, especially after doing some digging through old poll numbers. I went back to similar polling in 1993 and 1994, before the Republican wave of 1994 swept Democrats out of the majority in the House and Senate, and found two interesting points.

First, the Pew results aren’t all that different from some poll results released a dozen years ago.

In June 1993 and January 1994, Yankelovich Partners asked a similarly worded question about voters’ own House Members in Time/CNN surveys: “In your view, does the U.S. representative from your area deserve to be reelected or not?”

Both surveys found 57 percent of respondents saying that their Representative should be re-elected. In fact, the results from the January poll were identical to the recent Pew poll — 57 percent said their Representative deserved to be re-elected, while 25 percent said they did not.

Gallup polls for CNN and USA Today from July 1993 to March 1994 asked a question that was worded much like the Yankelovich and recent Pew polls, and it produced similarly high results of support for incumbent re-election.

The Gallup surveys asked respondents whether their U.S. Representative “deserves to be reelected,” and found 54 percent to 62 percent answering in the affirmative.

All of that sounded good for incumbents, didn’t it? But it wasn’t.

As we know, voters in 1994 tossed out 34 House Democrats seeking to return to office (and not a single Republican), even though the Gallup and Yankelovich numbers in the fall and winter showed a solid majority of Americans thought their Representatives should be re-elected.

That’s not great news for anyone citing last month’s Pew numbers in making their case that the situation isn’t all that bad for House Republicans right now.

But there is a second reason the Pew numbers should be viewed with caution. The wording of questions appears to be crucial in explaining the Pew, Gallup and Yankelovich numbers I just cited.

The ABC/Washington Post and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls of 1993 and 1994 asked respondents whether their Representative “deserved” to be re-elected or whether they were “inclined” to vote to re-elect their Representative in Congress.

But, unlike the polls that produced good numbers for incumbents, the ABC/Post and NBC/WSJ polls attached an additional clause that asked “or are you inclined to look around for someone else to vote for?” (ABC/Washington Post) and “or do you think it is time to give a new person a chance?” (NBC/WSJ).

When the question included an explicit alternative to re-electing the incumbent House Member, those being polled were much less likely to answer that their Representative should be sent back to Washington, D.C.

Specifically, the November 1993 ABC/Post poll found only 38 percent saying that their Representative should be re-elected, while 52 percent said they were inclined to look for someone else. In January 1994, only 32 percent said they’d vote to re-elect their Representative.

The NBC/WSJ poll results from July 1993 to May 1994 were similar, with 47 percent to 55 percent saying that it was time to give a new person a chance, and only 30 percent to 37 percent saying that their House Member deserved re-election.

Note that the Yankelovich, Gallup, ABC/Post and NBC/WSJ polls all were conducted in roughly the same period, between the summer of 1993 and the spring of 1994. Given that, the differences between the polls that offer a “new person” alternative and those that did not is dramatic.

Remember, the recent Pew survey wording was much, much closer to that of the Yankelovich and Gallup polling, which produced better numbers for incumbents and did not prove very predictive of the 1994 Republican wave.

The lesson, then, is clear. When it comes to the question of whether voters believe their own House Member deserves re-election, Republicans are in no better shape now than Democrats were at the same time during the 1993-1994 election cycle. A different “re-elect” wording would produce a result that shows greater vulnerability than does the Pew poll.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.