A new Newsweek poll released today provided more evidence that Democrats are not going lie down and let Republicans take control of Congress without a fight. The much discussed enthusiasm gap has been virtually closed. In fact, both registered and likely voters expressed a preference that Democrats keep control of Congress.
There are signs of increasing Democratic enthusiasm all through the Newsweek poll. The poll asked Republicans, Democrats, and Independents how much attention they are paying to the election. Republicans still lead Democrats, and Independents 69%-62%-59%. When the margin of error is factored in the seven point lead for Republicans shrinks to 2-3 points. An even bigger red flag for Republicans is that respondents stressed a small preference for the Democrats to retain control of Congress, 48%-43%. Among those who voted early, Democrats had a ten point lead 52%-42%.
The Republican frame that this election is referendum on Obama was largely rejected by the results of this poll, which found that to a majority of respondents, Obama is a non factor, (36%), and those who do see Obama as a factor are split. 31% see the vote as a vote for Obama, and 30% view it as a vote against Obama. When asked what their most important issue was, 62% answered the economy. 22% responded with healthcare, 7% the war in Afghanistan, and only 6% cited immigration as their top issue.
Another sign of Democratic revival is the increased approval rating of the President. Obama approval rating has climbed back up to 54%, which is its highest level since February. Equally significant is that his disapproval rating has fallen to 40%. As far as congressional approval ratings are concerned, neither party is popular, but generic Democratic members of Congress enjoy a 10 point approval advantage over their Republican colleagues, 41%-31%.
It would be misreading this data to assume that the Democrats have suddenly become more popular. Instead, a more likely explanation is that the Democratic base is finally engaged and paying attention. They have awakened from their 2008 Obama victory hangover, and are understanding the importance of 2010. It is no coincidence that their great awakening occurred after President Obama went back out on the campaign trail. No one else in the party inspires and rallies Democrats like Obama.
The other side of the coin is Republican support is still limited to 30%-35% of the electorate. By moving more to the right, Republicans have put a ceiling on the level of their support. They have not been able to capture Independents, and have continued to alienate moderate conservatives. This has left Democrats with plenty of potential supporters to woo. The shift in Democratic momentum has been visible for weeks in polls of individual races. If Democrats are now more engaged, and if these engaged supporters show up at the polls, Democratic candidates all around the country have a chance.
I still believe that the generic enthusiasm measurement is not in itself an accurate or reliable barometer for the upcoming election. More importantly for Democrats, if Obama’s popularity is on the rebound and they remain in control the Senate, even with control of the House, Republicans will be in for a very difficult next two years, but before Republicans can turn an eye towards 2012, they must first avoid what is looking like a possible collapse in 2010. Republicans could have captured the Congress, but they appear to be running on fumes. All that remains to be seen is if Democrats have enough time to catch them before they reach the finish line is reached on November 2.