With Election Day just a little more than three months away, the Morning Edition polling team was asked to take the pulse of likely voters in the most competitive districts across the country.
Democrat Stan Greenberg and Republican Glenn Bolger found that, while republicans do a little bit better with these voters than they do in a nationwide sample, the numbers still point to trouble for the party in power.
Midterm congressional elections aren't conducted nationally, district by district, so this poll ignores the districts where the incumbent is safe, and looks only at districts where either party might win.
"This one is different than any of our prior polls and is different than any of the national polls you get through the national media," says Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg. "This is a poll only done in the 50 competitive House races where, in fact, control of the House of Representatives will be decided."
Forty of those seats are currently held by republicans; 10 by democrats. And those contests are where both parties will be concentrating their resources come fall, says Republican pollster Glenn Bolger.
"This is where the effort's going to be made," Bolger says. "This is where the money's going to be spent, and this is where the messages are going to be sharpest …This is where the House hangs in the balance."
In 2004, the total vote in these 50 districts went republican by about 12 points. In our current survey, voters in these same districts say they would vote for the Democrat over the Republican by about six points.
We asked the question about a generic Democrat or Republican, then we plugged in the names of actual incumbents and challengers. The numbers didn't change much and the voters seemed pretty firm about their choices.
Only 18 percent of those favoring a Democrat said there was any chance they'd change their minds. Only 16 percent of those favoring a Republican said they might switch.
Tracie Galla is a music teacher who is at home on maternity leave.
She lives in the 4th District of Connecticut and plans to vote for Democrat challenger Diane Farrell over the Republican incumbent Chris Shays.
"I'm afraid that, nationally, there've been a lot of things over the past years that haven't gone in the right direction, in my opinion," Galla says. "So I'm concerned about everything going on in the Middle East, and I just think we need a change. I think that unfortunately the Republicans, you know, for the most part, support what Bush has done, and I just don't agree with it."
But Republicans will be working hard to turn out voters like Julius Brown, who is retired and living in South Carolina's 5th District. Brown favors the Republican challenger Ralph Norman over Democratic incumbent John Spratt.
"Well, first thing, I don't approve of the general abortion stand that … Democrats hold," Brown says. "Second, I believe the tax breaks that Republicans give, even though I didn't benefit much by them, I believe the country did."
Then there are undecided voters like Peggy Beekler, a retired social worker who lives in the 3rd District of Kentucky, represented by Ann Northup.
"Well, I'm rather disappointed in the Republicans," Beekler says. "I think they've made a mess of things, even though I've been a Republican."
Beekler is not happy about the war, but she's also unhappy about the so-called values issues that Republicans have counted on to get their voters to the polls.
"I think to do an amendment on burning the flag would be totally ridiculous," Beekler says. "I also think when Bush vetoed the stem-cell research … I feel like that's ridiculous because they're just going to destroy all those embryos anyway, so even though I am for life, I think that shouldn't have been vetoed. I think that was a really bad thing."
Beekler represents one of our most surprising findings: On the question of which party would do a better job on "values issues," like stem-cell research, flag-burning and gay marriage, Democrats prevailed by their biggest margin in the entire poll: 51 percent to 37 percent.
"And when we list values issues like stem-cell research, flag-burning and gay marriage, these are the issues that Republicans took the initiative, used their control in Congress to get on the air to be voting on, to be talking about," Greenberg says. "What this says: By 13 points, voters say they are more likely to vote Democratic because of hearing about these issues. Which suggests that the strategy of using the Congress to get out the base is one that's driving away a lot of voters."
On other issues like the war in Iraq, or the state of the economy, Democrats have a smaller advantage.
Only on the issue of illegal immigration are the parties tied — in the view of likely voters in the most competitive districts.
All of which leaves Republican Glenn Bolger hoping that Republicans will be able to rely on what, in the past, has been a superior effort at fundraising and mobilizing voters.
"Again, this is going to come down to: Is it an election where national political environment determines the outcome, or is it an election where what happens on the ground in the individual campaigns is what happens?" Bolger says. "And we won't know that, obviously, until they count the votes."