The Generic Is Falling! The Generic Is Falling!

by Stuart Rothenberg February 21, 2018 · 11:01 AM EST

I hear it all the time these days. The Democratic electoral wave is petering out. The generic ballot shows the Democrats’ advantage is cratering. President Donald Trump’s job approval ratings are up. Voters are giving the president more and more credit for the economy’s strength. Lighten up, political junkies, the election is not until November. Today’s generic may not be tomorrow’s.

Moreover, the Democrats remain well-positioned to benefit from an electoral wave. This column focuses on the generic ballot, as reported and averaged by RealClearPolitics.

Although various surveys report different results, the generic ballot probably now sits in the mid-single digits, in the 5- to 8-point range.

There was a point in mid-December when a series of polls showed Democrats with a big advantage in the generic ballot.

Consecutive polls released by Quinnipiac (+15 points, +12 points), CNN (+18 points), NBC News/Wall Street Journal (+11 points), PPP (+11 points) and Marist (+13 points) showed Democrats with a double-digit lead on the question.

For those using those polls as a starting point, the generic has tightened.

But the evidence is more complicated, and the warnings of the Democrats’ weakening position overblown.

There were 15 polls conducted between early December and early February that showed a double-digit advantage for Democrats — almost half of them, seven, came from Quinnipiac.

Quinnipiac’s generic advantage numbers have been relatively consistent (and within the margin of error) over the last two months.

Just as important, they have almost always showed a much larger Democratic advantage than other nonpartisan surveys:

  • Nov. 29-Dec. 4, Democrats +14
  • Dec. 6-11, Democrats +12
  • Dec. 12-18, Democrats +15
  • Jan. 5-9, Democrats +17
  • Jan. 12-16, Democrats +11
  • Jan. 19-23, Democrats +13
  • Feb. 2-5, Democrats +9

The February number was certainly down a few points, especially from early January. But given margins of error and the impact of news and short-term events on the public, the general direction of Quinnipiac’s polling is clear and consistent.

According to Quinnipiac, Democrats have had and continue to have a considerable advantage in the generic ballot (if the numbers accurately reflect the sentiments of registered voters, of course).

Deeper dive
Let’s compare the Quinnipiac numbers to those from Monmouth University.

Monmouth released two surveys between early December and early February. The December survey (Dec. 10-12) found Democrats with a 15-point advantage in the generic ballot, while the late January survey (Jan. 28-30) showed the party holding a mere 2-point edge.

You can conclude either that the Democrats’ generic advantage has collapsed or, alternatively, that one or both of the numbers did not accurately reflect where registered voters stood at that time.

For me, the choice isn’t close. I’ll select the second alternative. Public opinion rarely moves so dramatically in seven weeks.

Let’s look at the generic ballot questions in the Economist/YouGov online surveys from late November to early February. Five additional surveys during that same period showed the same trend. (The Economist Group is the parent company of Roll Call.)

  • Nov. 26-28, Democrats +6
  • Dec. 10-12, Democrats +8
  • Dec. 17-19, Democrats +9
  • Jan. 8-9, Democrats +7
  • Jan. 14-16, Democrats +6
  • Jan. 28-30, Democrats +5
  • Feb. 4-6, Democrats +6

No wild swings. No dramatic movement. Just a consistent mid- to high-single-digit advantage.

The narrow range doesn’t prove that the numbers are correct, but at the very least they raise questions about the “sky is falling” assessment.

Let’s compare the Economist/YouGov surveys to CNN’s, which asked the generic three times between October and January, a slightly earlier period than the other polls I’ve been discussing.

An Oct. 12-15 CNN poll found the Democrats with a 16-point advantage in the generic (54 percent to 38 percent).

In mid-December, the Democrats’ advantage grew to 18 points (56 percent to 38 percent).

And in the most recent poll (Jan. 14-18), the Democratic advantage plunged to 5 points (49 percent to 44 percent).

Again, you can believe the Democrats’ position in the generic has absolutely cratered, or you can be skeptical — as I am — that the mid- to high-teens advantages accurately portrayed where the cycle was.

Finally, let me turn to my favorite survey over the years, the one from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.

An Oct. 23-26 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had the Democrats with a 7-point generic ballot advantage.

In mid-December, that advantage spiked to 11 points. And in mid-January, it was back down to a modest 6 points.

Do those three surveys show movement, or, given that they all were well within the margin of error, is the difference just noise? I don’t think we can know for sure without looking at them in the larger context.

The sky is not falling
After examining all of the data on RealClearPolitics, including individual surveys from various organizations, I’m inclined to conclude that the Democrats’ advantage in the generic has generally been in the middle to upper single digits except, possibly, for a short-lived spike in mid-December.

I would not be surprised if we see another spike or two (in one direction or the other), but count me as skeptical that the sky is falling for Democrats.

The warnings that Democrats can’t take a wave for granted and don’t have the House locked up in November strike me as wise. It is still early.

But waves usually don’t develop until the midterm year, so the fact that the Democratic advantage isn’t in the double digits now is not especially important.

During 2005, the year before the Democratic midterm wave, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot favored the Democrats by anywhere from 5 to 11 points.

In January 2006, the survey showed Democrats with a 9-point advantage.

In March, the party’s advantage grew to 13 points, but one month later, it fell to a mere 6 points (45 percent to 39 percent).

I expect that at that point some Democrats and many journalists were issuing dire warnings about the party’s prospects.

As we know, the Democratic generic ballot advantage in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll jumped back up to double digits in June 2006, and the Democrats eventually won the House in November, with the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot showing a lead in the mid-teens.

So what should you take from all of this?

The abundance of polls has not made our political crystal balls clearer. We have more data, but they often seem contradictory.

We still have to figure out which numbers are accurate and what they mean.

There are now so many polls asking the generic ballot question that even people who should know better end up making comparisons across surveys.

The most recent poll gets all of the hype, no matter whether it seems to fit comfortably with other data and real news events.

And the generic ballot is just one measure of the two parties’ strengths during the cycle, which is why any analysis should look at multiple indicators, including multiple poll questions, fundraising numbers, measures of enthusiasm, candidate recruitment and district-level survey data in competitive seats.

So watch the generic ballot, but don’t become a prisoner to it.

Democratic prospects of taking over the House are not measurably worse than they were a month or two ago. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to believe that they are better and improving.