With only 18 days left until Election Day, an NPR survey of likely voters in battleground districts found that while the overall field still tilts to the GOP, Democrats are closing the gap in some places.
The good news for Democrats is that they have improved their position in 58 of the battleground districts. In June, Democratic candidates trailed their Republican opponents in these districts by 8 points. Now, the GOP advantage is only 3 points.
If the election for Congress were being held today, for whom would you vote? (Question asked of voters in 58 Democratic-held districts surveyed in both June and October.)
But, says Republican pollster Glen Bolger, the bad news for Democrats is that there are now more of their seats at risk. The battleground has expanded.
"That's a succinct way to put it," Bolger said. "Having Republicans ahead or tied across 86 districts just gives Republicans a much larger margin for error to win back the House."
'Small Movements Matter'
Seventy swing seats were examined in June. Now, 96 are up for grabs — 86 of them held by Democrats.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg sees a small, but silver lining.
"This is still an election that it would be very hard for Democrats to hold the House with these numbers," Greenberg said. "But there is movement here and it's not trivial movement.
"Particularly when you're dealing with life and death, that is we're dealing with battles that might well be right at the edge on control of the Congress. So many of these races are close; small movements matter."
Greenberg also points to the 10 battleground seats in the NPR survey that are currently held by Republicans. In June, the Republican advantage in those seats was 16 points; now it's 7.
For this latest survey, the polling firms interviewed 1,200 likely voters in the battleground districts over the days Oct. 7-10. The survey was done of "land-line" telephone users only. Calls were not made to cell phone users. Public Opinion Strategies' Bolger says that could mean some younger, possibly Democratic-leaning voters were missed and that the GOP advantage is slightly narrower than the results show. For results based on responses from all 1,200, the margin of error is +/- 2.83 percentage points. Results on subgroups are higher.
Democratic Enthusiasm Gap
"The Democrats have cut the deficit a little bit," Bolger said. "But the key is they still have the enthusiasm-gap problem where the Republican leads by more among the most interested voters.
"They also still have a problem where more voters in Democratic districts want a new person and fewer approve of their incumbent member of Congress."
In Democratic-held battleground districts, voters by 47-41 percent say they preferred a new person in Congress over their incumbent. In the much smaller universe of Republican-held battleground seats, it's much closer: 46 percent say they want a new member of Congress; 44 percent say re-elect the incumbent.
As for the enthusiasm gap, likely voters in the poll who have a very high interest in the election are more likely to vote Republican. The likely voters with the lowest interest lean toward the Democrats.
"The enthusiasm gap is real. And there's no doubt that if you lost the quarter of the voters in this sample who are the lowest end of the scale — these voters give a majority of their support to Democrats — we would have a very, very tough election," Greenberg said. "But these are likely voters.
"There's evidence that more Democrats are showing more interest in voting and [we've] got three weeks to go to see how that plays out."
As this is a survey of congressional districts, not a national poll, Bolger and Greenberg decided not to poll people on cell phones. That could affect the results.
"Young voters are a critical piece to come back into the electorate; they played such a big part in 2008," Bolger said. "They are disproportionately represented among cell phone users and that could add a couple points to the Democratic side of the ledger, which is to say that it still has a potential to be very close."
Poll Respondents Speak
Among the voters surveyed was bricklayer Steve Benefield of Hartford, Ala., who is typical of this year's fired-up Republican base. He has no intention of voting for incumbent Democrat Bobby Bright. He thinks a Republican-controlled Congress is the solution to the nation's problems.
"I think the country's on its way to falling on its face," he said. "You know, you can't keep going to the cookie jar. It's going to get empty after a while."
But other voters offer a view that could help some Democrats survive. Sharon Smith from Melfa, Va., calls herself a conservative, and she simply can't stand President Obama. "I think he's done everything wrong. All he's done is made the country worse," she said. "He promised to bring our men home within a year; he has not done that. He promised that our economics would be better; he has not done that. He's speaking of jobs; there's very few jobs out there."
But she's undecided about whether she'll vote for or against her Democratic congressman, Glenn Nye, who has built his campaign around his opposition to Obama's policies.
"Glen Nye — he's got some good ideas and he does not agree with everything with the president and that's a good thing," she said. "That's probably the reason why I feel the way I do about him. He sounds to me like he's more for what people need right now."
Democrat Dan Teters is a party loyalist who will vote for his Democratic incumbent, Debbie Halvorson of Illinois. "I'm more pleased with what the Democrats have done so far than what the Republicans did the previous eight years," he said.
But like many voters who wanted change in 2008 and still do, Teter doesn't have a problem with the prospect of Republican control of Congress.
"I'm not really too concerned about it. I think that, I'm a little bit like many people I know who say, 'Let's try something else; what we've got isn't working,' " he said. "And I think historically we've seen that just because one or the other party controls one or both houses doesn't mean that nothing gets done; just sometimes the agenda changes."
Obama's whirlwind of campaign appearances may be bringing some of his core voters home, but he may not be motivating them with one of the messages he's been using — that Republican control of Congress would be a disaster.