Warning: Races May Not Be As Close As They Appear

by Stuart Rothenberg October 2, 2006 · 12:04 AM EDT

Democratic pollsters are pushing lots of polls that show second- and third-tier candidates performing surprisingly well. If most of these challengers win, the Democrats will gain 30 or 40 House seats.

Obviously, that’s unlikely. Extremely unlikely.

So what are we all supposed to make of Democratic polling memos asserting that Paul Hodes (New Hampshire’s 2nd), John Hall (New York’s 19th), Jason Altmire (Pennsylvania’s 4th), Victoria Wulsin (Ohio’s 2nd), Charlie Brown (California’s 4th), Nancy Skinner (Michigan’s 9th) and Dan Maffei (New York’s 25th) are breathing down the necks of incumbent Republicans?

Some of these numbers stem from the fact that the Democratic base has solidified early on and Democratic candidates are getting the vote that normally comes to them only in October. The folks over at Public Opinion Strategies, I believe, coined the term “premature partisan polarization” to refer to the current tendency of voters to pick their party’s Congressional candidates earlier and earlier, even if they know nothing about them.

Consider Maffei, a Democrat challenging Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.) in a district that includes Syracuse and the eastern end of Rochester.

A recent Maffei poll shows him trailing Walsh by only 4 points, 44 percent to 40 percent. Yet Maffei’s favorable rating was just 24 percent. That means a large percentage of respondents who said they would vote for Maffei don’t have a favorable impression of him. But they are for him, whomever he may be.

Presumably, most of these respondents are Democrats who want to send a message to President Bush and figure that voting for Maffei is a good way of doing so. After all, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) won the district in 2004, defeating Bush 50 percent to 48 percent.

Maffei looks pretty irrelevant in all this, and the poll suggests that at this point, a slice of white bread with a (D) after its name would have a good chance of holding Walsh under 50 percent.

Maffei is not the only Democratic candidate running far ahead of his or her name identification. In New Hampshire’s 2nd district, a Democratic poll pegs Hodes’ total name identification as 27 percent, yet has him drawing 42 percent in the ballot test against Rep. Charles Bass (R).

In New York’s 20th district, a Global Strategy Group poll for Kirsten Gillibrand shows her favorable name ID at 34 percent even as she draws 39 percent of the vote against Rep. John Sweeney (R).

In Pennsylvania’s 4th district, Altmire’s total name identification is 21 percent, yet he is drawing 44 percent of the vote in a ballot test against incumbent GOP Rep. Melissa Hart.

In each of these districts, there are enough Democratic voters to provide a solid Democratic Congressional vote, and Maffei, Hodes, Gillibrand and Altmire apparently are getting their share early — even prematurely. But are these races as close as they would seem?

Count me as skeptical, and not only because most of these poll memos contain the dreaded -and when voters were read short descriptions about the candidates- second ballot that allegedly measures a challenger’s fundamental strength. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

The Maffei poll memo includes at least a couple of things that caught my eye and deserve mention. First, despite Maffei’s move in the ballot test, Walsh still has a name ID of 51 percent favorable/36 percent unfavorable. In other words, in a district won by Kerry and where Walsh’s “re-elect” has plummeted from 42 percent to 34 percent, the Congressman still is viewed favorably by a majority of respondents.

Granted, Walsh’s negatives have risen since a previously unreleased March Democratic survey, but that’s not surprising given the national and state environments, which strongly favor Democrats. Walsh’s favorable ratings have slipped only slightly, from 56 percent in March to 51 percent now.

Equally noteworthy is that district voters, who have a very unfavorable view of Bush (25 percent favorable/62 percent unfavorable), seem willing to make a clear distinction between Bush and Walsh.

That willingness to make a distinction is crucial, since it demonstrates that Walsh has, to a considerable extent, personalized the district. In an environment like this, and in a district such as New York’s 25th, Walsh’s success in building his own image is crucial.

The memo goes on to make a generalized assertion: “Voters in the 25th District are clearly looking for change.”

Well, I’ve seen that message, in one way or another, in almost every Democratic polling memo that comes across my desk. They almost always cite Bush’s standing. They almost all argue that voters want change or are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. And they are right, but only so far.

The problem for Democrats is that in most cases, that won’t be enough by itself to get voters to fire GOP incumbents. That’s particularly true if Republicans pound away at their challengers, making them the issue in their races and decreasing their appeal as vehicles for change. Of course, not all Republican incumbents are doing that yet. And that’s a mistake that some Republicans could well come to regret.