Bad news for Democrats in new polls

Republicans have opened a large lead on a generic ballot, and their voters are more energized, too

Published November 11, 2009 7:55PM (EST)

There's still quite a bit of time left before voters go to the ballot box for the midterm elections next year. But two recent polls are giving them reason to be nervous -- and there's a chance they could affect the Democratic agenda over the next year, too.

Gallup recently ran a poll in which it asked respondents whether, if the election were held right now -- and without knowing the identity of the candidates in their district -- they'd vote for the Democrat or the Republican. (This is known as a "generic ballot" poll.) Turns out the Republicans have a four percentage point advantage -- quite a different result from when Democrats were leading by six points back in July. The margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points, however, so Democrats might be rightfully tempted to dismiss that result.

What they can't ignore, though, is what Gallup found about the GOP's lead among independents. Among that segment of the population, Republicans lead on the generic ballot by a fairly stunning 22 points, up from just one point in July. 

There are reasons that Democrats shouldn't be panicking over these results, at least not yet. Polls are snapshots, pictures of a moment in time, rather than being truly predictive, for one thing. Plus, as Gallup itself points out, "Though the registered-voter results reported here speak to the preferences of all eligible voters, voter turnout is crucial in determining the final outcome of midterm elections."

Problem is, there's another new poll out, this one from Pew, that shows Republicans and those who lean Republican are much more enthusiastic about voting next year than Democrats are. That's not surprising, considering the makeup of the government right now, but it is worth remembering the impact that voter enthusiasm can have on a race -- one need look no further than President Obama's own election to see that.

The other thing that should probably concern progressives about these polling numbers is the potential response from elected Democrats. If they're already nervous about independents turning against them, some -- especially those in more conservative areas -- might decide it's too risky to back all or part of their party's agenda, especially healthcare reform.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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