Real Polls and the 2006 Election

Karl Rove told NPR’s Robert Siegel Tuesday that Republicans will retain both Houses of Congress two weeks hence. When Siegel said this was extraordinarily optimistic, Rove retorted, “I’m allowed to see the polls on the individual races. And after all, this does come down to individual contests between individual candidates.” The ensuing discussion tangentially focused on an important distinction: The difference between publically available media polls, especially those that focus on general attitudes about the two parties, and the “inside” polls of each race that concentrate on likely voters.

Bob Novak, who despite playing a partisan hack on television is respected even by the likes of Kos, provides a race-by-race analysis of the contest, although the origin and reliability of the polls used is not disclosed. Nonetheless, his results look about right: “If election were held to day, Democrats would take over the majority in the House with a 21-seat pickup” combined with a Democratic pickup of four seats in the Senate, two short of what’s needed for a switch.

More interestingly, though, he predicts that this will not be a so-called “wave” election, where a strong national sentiment against a party “negates seat-by-seat analyses.”

The reasons for the 2006 wave talk: a) the huge generic edge by Democrats over Republicans in current party preference, which never has been a good predictor of House elections; b) the mood inside the Washington Beltway, also a poor predictor historically; c) the run of bad news for Republicans and the Bush Administration; and d) unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the Iraq War.

The Bush-Iraq popularity is a constant and a major factor in many (but not all) races. But the corrosive political fact of higher gasoline prices has been mitigated, and the impact of the Mark Foley scandal has diminished. Still to be determined is how the conservative base’s unhappiness over government spending and immigration will factor in the election.

Indeed, despite substantial hand-wringing in many quarters (including this one) there seems not to be much continued reaction to the Foley mess outside the districts of three or four GOP leaders implicated in the cover-up.

Novak also contends that Jim McTague’s recent report in Barron’s, which argued that the Republicans would suffer much smaller losses than suggested by the conventional wisdom (8-14 seats in the House and three in the Senate), “confuses cause and effect” by making predictions based on the fact that the bigger fundraiser tends to win. Novak correctly notes, “. Bigger spenders historically may win 93 percent of House races, but in most cases the spending advantage can be accounted for by the fact that no one gives money to long-shot, no-chance challengers.”

The other interesting thing to note about Novak’s prediction is that it presumes that every single “leans Democrat” seat in both the House and Senate will fall. Statistically, that’s unlikely. Still, there’s plenty of margin for error in the House, since the Democrats only need to pick up 16 seats to take the majority.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. 1) Rove is partisan. In fact, I think given his history and success, you could put his picture in the dictionary next to successful partisans. Being partisan, the “man bites dog” story would have been if he predicted a democratic land slide.

    2) Rove is also working with an order of magnitude more polls than the public is getting. He also has one of the best understandings of what the republican GOTV effort can and can’t do, especially when comparing polls and actual election results.

    3) Given all of that, we won’t know who will win either chamber until November. I’m hoping that we will actually know by the end of November, but if it is close, I can imagine lawsuits dragging it out.

    4) There are two long weeks to go. Anyone who thinks either party has this in a lock is deluding themselves. The democrats main advantage is the MSM can damp down or fire up any other ‘Foley’ that comes up.

    5) If Novak is right, then the democrats are going to be in trouble in 2008. They will have a thin majority. They will have a vocal minority in their party that will be pushing for impeachment. They will have several freshmen reps from districts that vote republican whose vote will be critical to getting an impeachment vote through. If they don’t try for impeachment, they will anger that vocal minority in their party. If they do try for impeachment, they will anger a larger majority in the country (see the impeachment of Clinton). In any case in 2008, they will be having to defend districts like TX-22 and FL-16 which to put it mildly will be difficult (If they can’t pull these districts with the structural advantage they have, they can’t get a majority either).

  2. legion says:

    I’m sure Rove does get far more in-depth info than the average pundit. But he isn’t the only one who does. Yet he seems to be the only person outside of W crowing about the GOP’s chances this fall… Surely other people – Dems, non-partisan analysts, etc – get the same info Rove does. Why is he the only one who gets a good vibe off it?

    Minor tin-hat moment: does anyone else get totally creeped out at the line, “I’ve got the poll numbers”?

  3. James Joyner says:

    legion: Yes, it’s a little weird and I think there’s spin going on. But, no, most analysts don’t get the inside numbers, which are closely held by the parties since they pay for them and gain advantage by closely holding the internals.

  4. Legion,

    It might just be party discipline that is letting only Rove with the inside numbers make public comments on this.

    The other side of this would be Rove’s democratic equivalents who should have access to an equal number of polls. If it would be a blow out, you would think they would be saying so (and releasing the polls to show it).

    I freely grant that all of Rove’s calm could be acting because he sees the train wreck a coming and might as well be calm because there is nothing else to do. If so, his passing on the opportunity to take the human approach and start shifting the blame “we had it all locked down until the Foley incident. Who could have foreseen that?” so as not to be held accountable is unusual in the human animal.

    It is hard to separate out the spin from reality. I remember the democratic chair in 2004 predicting they would carry all 50 states. Obviously spin. If Rove was predicting a gain in the house and senate, I think that would be spin on a similar nature.

    It may be like a 5 year old and Christmas, but we are just going to have to wait until election day (and probably a few days after as they count the absentee votes, etc) until we know. My gut says that election day will be another Fitzmas for the left. Something anticipated for a long time but then found to not be what they wanted after all.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    As I read the tea leaves in my own naive, amateurish way, I think the House is even money and the Senate a long shot to change hands. That leaves one of two alternatives most likely:

    1. Democrats narrowly take House; Republicans hold Senate. Not a formula for passing a Democratic agenda.

    2. Republicans narrowly hold House; Republicans hold Senate.

    In either case I see Republicans, slightly chastened, breathing a sigh of relief at a narrow escape and lots of unhappy Democratic activists.

  6. Tano says:

    I dont think this is even worth speculating on. Just take it as a given, that Rove, or anyone in Rove’s position, will make public statements based on his caluculation of what effect the statement will have, given his objectives. There should be no expectation that his “predictions” have any connection whatsoever to what he really believes might happen on Nov. 7.

  7. legion says:

    You raise an excellent point… after the clusterf*ck that was the 2004 elections, there are probably a lot of Dems who wouldn’t trust a poll if it told them the sky was blue. Over on his blog, Oliver Willis frequently chides Dems to play as though they’re 15 points down, regardless of the polls or CW, and some of them may be taking his advice…

  8. Patrick McGuire says:

    The last time I paid any attention to polls was when the exit polls of the 2004 elections had Kerry winning by a landslide.

    My bet is that the sampling is severely flawed (right-wing voters avoid pollsters) and the responses are not accurate (people haven’t made up their minds yet so they repeat the current trends). In this election, I am also betting that many right-wing voters who are currently mad at the Republicans, and so might vow to vote Democrat or not vote, will hold their nose on Nov. 7 to vote their party candidates.

    Finally, I agree with Rove’s prediction. In fact, I am predicting an increase in the Republican seats in both houses.

  9. Legion,

    There are three ways to read the democratic Rove equivalent silence (at least I haven’t been hearing them). One is as you say, they are thrice bitten so thrice shy about how the election is going to go. I remember one democratic insider who was sure that if they could get another 8 million to the polls of their supporters, they would win. They felt that the GOP GOTV effort peaked in 2000, so there was nothing more for the GOP to put on the table. The dems got their 8 million more voters. And the GOP brought 11.5 million more voters to the polls. So they see a blow out coming, but they are keeping their head down and nose to the grind stone because they won’t believe it until the gravitationally challenged women sings.

    Another possibility is that they are seeing the same numbers as Rove in the poll, but don’t know the likely GOTV margin adders to put in. So they keep quiet because it is to close.

    The third possibility is that they see that the polls are against them. They recognize that unless something changes they are going to fall short. If this was the case, I would expect to hear some CYA stories coming out.

    We shall see what we shall see.


    From your lips to God’s ears, but I think the chance of gaining in both chambers is pretty slim. We are at a 75 year high water mark for the GOP in both chambers. Like the stock market, I think long term things look good, but also expect to see some advance and retreat as part of the overall direction.

    With the right recruiting in 2005, we could easily be seeing the Senate majority increase. That is what hurts most (casts a glare towards Elizabeth).

  10. Patrick says:

    It seems that by focussing the whole election on one issue Iraq and the related despairing negativity, and engaging in the lie that Iraq is *not* part of the greater war on terror (which it is), the Democrats have managed to make voters forget
    (1) The fact that Republican policies have helped produce jobs and helped make our economy strong and growing; Since January, businesses have created over 1.2 million new jobs. Over the past four quarters GDP has increased by 3.5 percent.
    (2) The fact that Republicans are serious and correct in analyzing and fighting the war on islamo-fascist terrorism. Consider: 1. On missile defense of America — Democrats voted against it. 2. On the Patriot Act — Democrats voted against it. 3. On tapping foreign terrorists’ phone calls to the U.S. — Democrats voted against it. 4. On tracing terrorists’ money flow between foreign banks — Democrats voted against it. 5. On building a border wall to control illegal immigration and stop dope — dealers, terrorists and criminals — Democrats voted against it. 6. On interrogating captured terrorists — 194 Democrats just voted against it.
    (3) The fact that the leftwing Democrat leaders in the House are out of touch with mainstream American values – pro-abortion, anti-defense-of-marriage, anti-God-in-pledge San Fran Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi not really someone who will play in Peoria so to speak.

    The Democrats do NOT deserve to win, not when they embrace nuts like Cindy Sheehan, demonize our efforts to the point of undremining the GWOT, an threaten to undo our booming economy by refusing to extend the Bush tax cuts;
    and the Republicans deserve credit on economy, tax cuts, reforms etc. and even falling deficit that they are not getting credit for.

    Thus the last minute trend *should* be to the Republicans, if the voters are thinking right, they will reconsider Democrat support.

  11. John Duvall says:

    The only polls Rove likely has that most of us don’t have is his insider Republican ones. I’ve been tracking a dozen independent polls, race by race, for House and Senate, and they all predict a 20 to 35 seat Democratic gain. National polls predict a 15-pt. margin for Dems. No GOTV effort can upset those kinds of margins. The Senate is still in play, but if the Republicans hold onmto the House, a major investigation is called for, which the media and public MUST demand. We have to find a way to ensure the legitimacy of elections in the USA.