Is Ted Cruz Causing a Democratic Wave?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 16, 2013 · 8:56 AM EDT

Last week I observed that I hadn’t yet seen “compelling evidence” that a Democratic political wave could be developing. I can no longer say that after seeing the recently released NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

That highly regarded poll showed Republican numbers have taken a considerable hit because of the shutdown and the media coverage around it. The GOP’s 24 percent positive/53 percent negative image obviously is a red flag, especially compared with image numbers for the Democratic Party (39 percent positive/40 percent negative) and President Barack Obama (47 percent positive/41 percent negative).

The NBC/WSJ poll’s version of the generic ballot, which asks respondents about their “preference for the outcome of next year’s congressional elections,” shows a substantial shift from an insignificant 3-point Democratic edge (46 percent to 43 percent) to an 8-point Democratic advantage (47 percent to 39 percent).

Respondents split evenly in June on the role of the government, with 48 percent saying that government “should do more to solve problems” and 48 percent saying that government “is doing too many things.” That has also changed, with 52 percent now saying that government should do more and only 44 percent saying that it is doing too much.

I haven’t mentioned the poll’s shutdown “blame” question because I have serious concerns about its wording.

Because the question gives respondents a choice between blaming “President Obama” and “Republicans in Congress,” the terrible GOP numbers may well reflect Congress’ poor standing rather than merely the party’s.

I’d like to see “and Democrats in Congress” added to the question before jumping to conclusions about the extent to which voters blame the Republicans, though it is clear from a variety of polls that more Americans blame the GOP than the Democrats.

Still, taken together, the poll shows significant deterioration in support for Republicans and in the party’s brand. It also shows opportunities for the president and his party.

And if this were October 2014, or even April 2014, I expect that other surveys, at the national, state and district levels, would show the same thing. Everyone who watches House races closely would be talking about a Democratic wave that certainly could hand the House over to a Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the final two years of Barack Obama’s second term. Certainly I would.

But the caution I offered in my last column still holds: Surveys conducted in the middle of a major event may have “a very short shelf life.” After the current confrontation ends, voters could easily return to their default partisan positions — or the shutdown and debt ceiling showdown could have created a new partisan baseline from which the GOP can never recover.

I understand that everyone wants to be the first to proclaim some new political normal, but that’s simply not how I approach handicapping. I need to see whether the fundamentals have changed, and if so, what that means.

So what am I looking for?

First, I’d like to see what the major media national polls are showing at least a couple of weeks after things have returned to normal. In particular, I’ll be very interested in what the NBC/WSJ polls show one month and then two months after things settle down.

I’ll want to see if the generic ballot, which can be influenced by events, starts to return to its pre-shutdown position, or if it has recalibrated. Obviously, I also want to see where the two parties’ image numbers stand.

Second, I want to see what district-level surveys are showing and compare them with what similar surveys showed during the past few cycles. The polls I’ll be paying the most attention to (which may not be conducted for weeks or months) are those taken for the parties and candidates by respected partisan pollsters — polls not intended to help fundraising or recruit certain candidates, but designed to gather strategic information for campaigns.

Because the holidays are often an odd period in politics, I expect the most important poll numbers to start appearing after the first of the year, making mid-January an important time to assess the state of the parties and the inclinations of the electorate.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Syria seemed to be a defining event for the president, raising questions about his leadership. Now, everyone has forgotten about that crisis and moved on to a different fight. That could happen again.

One thing that now appears incontestable is that GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has damaged his party badly in the short term, making the GOP look extreme, confused, unreasonable and unappealing. If you have been a regular reader of this column, that shouldn’t surprise you.

In June 2012, leading up to the Texas GOP Senate primary between Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, I wrote about my interviews with both candidates:

The difference between the two men is simple: Cruz is not willing to compromise even if it means being irrelevant to the legislative process, while Dewhurst is willing to look for middle ground. …

Indeed, given his worldview and personal style, I’d expect Cruz to become a significant voice for conservative purists who believe their party has been too willing to give up on principle.

If elected, Cruz certainly will join the GOP’s “Uncompromising Caucus,” which includes DeMint, Lee, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a handful of others, making it more difficult for his party’s leadership and for the Senate to deal with the nation’s problems.

That assessment of Cruz has been borne out by recent events. We’ll need to wait at least a few more months to see whether he has done enough to make Pelosi speaker once again.