A new public opinion survey for NPR shows just how difficult it will be for Democrats to avoid big losses in the House this November.
Democrat Stan Greenberg and Republican Glen Bolger conducted the first public battleground poll of this election cycle. They chose the 70 House districts experts regard as most likely to oust incumbents this fall. What they found was grim news for Democrats.
For this poll, Bolger and Greenberg chose the districts where incumbents are considered the most vulnerable, and, in the case of open seats, the ones most likely to switch party control in November. Sixty are currently held by Democrats — many of whom won these seats even when voters in the same district preferred Republican John McCain for president in 2008. The other 10 districts are the flip side — held by Republicans in the House, even though their voters went for Barack Obama in 2008.
These are this year's swing seats — the political terrain where the battle for control of the House of Representatives will be won or lost. In this battleground, voters are choosing Republicans over Democrats 49 percent to 41 percent.
Poll Results 'A Snooze Alarm'
"In a year where voters want change and in which Democrats are seen to be in power, this is a tough poll — about as tough as you get," Greenberg said.
Bolger said the poll results will be a wake-up call for Democrats, who were stunned at the beginning of the year when Republican Scott Brown won the U.S. Senate seat held for years by the late Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
"If Massachusetts was the first wake-up call, this is the snooze alarm going off," Bolger said.
He pointed out that President Obama's approval ratings are much lower in these competitive districts than they are nationally: 54 percent of the likely battleground voters disapproved of Obama's performance; 40 percent approved.
"It's very problematic for the president to have a 40 percent approval rating in these 60 Democratic districts," Bolger said. "When you look at history, when the president is below 50 percent nationally, his party tends to lose more than 40 seats."
Energized GOP Voters
Bolger says the NPR poll has more evidence of a trend that's been apparent all year: Republican-leaning voters are energized, while the intensity seems to have leached out of the Democratic ranks.
"When you look at the generic ballot for Congress in the Democrat-held seats, the Republican is up by 5 [points]. But among those who rate their interest as 8 to 10, you know, the high-interest voters, the Republican leads in those Democratic seats 53 to 39.
"And what that means is that is in a close election, the Republican enthusiasm will put Republicans over the top, just like in '06 and '08, the Democratic enthusiasm put the Democrats over the top."
That lack of enthusiasm on the part of Democrats worried one NPR poll respondent, Donna Blanchette, a science teacher and Democrat from Minnesota who would like to see her Republican incumbent voted out of office.
"Michele Bachmann is in my area, and as I watched the Republicans ramp up behind her, I don't see a lot of Democrats being as forthcoming as we probably need to unseat Michele Bachmann," Blanchette said.
What would fire up Democrats?
Frank Damico Jr., a lawyer from Louisiana, says he wishes the health care bill had been stronger. He wants to see his party fight harder against special interests and against Republicans.
"The Democrats have been afraid, and I wish they would realize who put them in office," Damico said. "I think they are more concerned with placating the right when I don't think they are going to get the right supporting them no matter what they do."
But Brian Woolems, a union painter from southern Indiana, an independent who leans Republican, is typical of the likely voters in the NPR poll: His beef with the Democratic Congress is a long list of particulars.
"I'm not in favor of the health care bill," he said. "And they are working on cap and trade, and I'm not in favor of that. And I'm not in favor of all the stimulus spending they have done — pretty much everything."
An Uphill Struggle
Democratic candidates have had success in some of the recent special elections. But despite those wins, the outlook for the midterms is still toxic for Democrats, Bolger said.
"Democrats will have some good plays by individual campaigns, but it's getting close. ... The concrete is drying — it's not yet solidly locked in, but it's getting very difficult for this to change where there's a picture of Republicans picking up at least 30 seats," he said.
And as Greenberg knows all too well, Republicans only need 40 pickups to take control of the House.
"What I'm hoping that this poll brings about is that the Democrats are running with a much more effective economic message, which talks about who they fought for, and what they are engaged in now," Greenberg said. "And that may also come out of the president's speech this week, where I think as well he will be talking about not so much a grade for past performance but what he intends to do on energy and the Gulf."
Obama will speak from the Oval Office at 8 p.m. Tuesday about the devastating oil spill and his plans to repair the damage. Greenberg hopes the message lifts Democrats' fortunes across the board.