Politics

Parties Nearly Tied for Congress in 2010

by Lydia Saad

Voter preferences for Congress split 46% Democratic vs. 44% Republican

PRINCETON, NJ -- Roughly a year before the 2010 midterm elections, Gallup finds the Republican and Democratic Parties nearly tied in the congressional ballot preferences of registered voters. Forty-six percent of registered voters say they would vote for the Democrat and 44% say the Republican when asked which party's candidate they would support for Congress, if the election were held today.

2009 Generic Congressional Ballot -- Registered Voters

The Democratic Party held a slightly wider, six percentage-point lead on this important indicator of party strength in July, 50% to 44%. However, both 2009 results show a more competitive political environment than Gallup has generally seen since before the Democrats regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2006 midterm elections. Closer to elections, Gallup bases its results on "likely voters." Doing so typically improves the Republicans' positioning by several points; thus, when Democrats lead slightly among registered voters, it is possible for Republicans to be ahead among likely voters.

"The Republican Party's relatively strong position on the generic ballot in the latest poll, conducted Oct. 1-4, stems from the support of political independents, who now favor Republican over Democratic candidates by 45% to 36%."

As Gallup's "generic ballot" trend shows, the Democrats held a sizable lead among registered voters from about March 2006 through most of 2008. The Republicans nearly tied the Democrats immediately following the Republican National Convention in September 2008, but that proved short-lived. The gap widened to 7 points by mid-October, and to 15 points immediately prior to the 2008 elections -- not only securing the Democrats' victory, but enabling them to greatly expand their majority position.

Generic Congressional Ballot, Recent Trend -- Registered Voters

The closeness of the two parties in voter preferences today is similar to that found in most Gallup readings from 1994 through 2005 (spanning the period when Republicans won control of the U.S. House, and subsequently maintained it for more than a decade).

The Republican Party's relatively strong position on the generic ballot in the latest poll, conducted Oct. 1-4, stems from the support of political independents, who now favor Republican over Democratic candidates by 45% to 36%. In July, independents were evenly divided in their party voting preferences, whereas last fall they showed a clear preference for the Democrats.

Generic Congressional Ballot -- Recent Trend, Independent Registered Voters

Across these surveys, at least 90% each of Republicans and of Democrats have said they plan to vote for their own party's candidate. Today, that figure is 93% for the Democrats and 92% for the Republicans.

Congressional Approval Bears Watching

Gallup's latest congressional job approval rating provides an additional sign that the 2010 elections could be challenging for Democratic candidates: 21% of Americans approve and 72% disapprove. Approval of Congress is now low across all three partisan groups, but is exceptionally weak among Republicans (9%) and independents (16%).

By comparison with presidential elections, midterm elections are low-turnout affairs that put much more focus on the races for Congress. Congress has seen approval ratings below 30% in a midterm year most recently in 2006 (with 26% approving in October and in early November). In that year's elections, the Republicans lost majority control of Congress after 12 years in power. Previously, Gallup measured sub-30% approval in 1994 (23% approved in October), when the Democrats lost majority control after 40 years in power. Prior to that, in 1990, 26% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing in early November, yet the Democrats held their majority in that election.

Congress' Approval Ratings Prior to Midterm Elections

For most of 2009 prior to Gallup's Oct. 1-4 survey, congressional approval had been in the 30s. Thus, the latest 21% reading -- still more than a year away from the election -- merely represents a preliminary indication of possible trouble for the incumbent party. The 2010 readings will be much more instructive in forecasting the national two-party vote for Congress, which can, in turn, be used to estimate the division of seats.

Bottom Line

For the second time this year, Gallup polling shows the Republicans within single digits of the Democrats in the congressional voting preferences of registered voters. That's a distinct shift away from the larger Democratic leads seen since the Democrats won back control of Congress in 2006, and a sign that if the 2010 elections were held today, Republicans would likely outperform Democrats, given usual turnout patterns.

The challenge for congressional Democrats is underscored by today's low approval of Congress. While it is far too early to say whether these indicators spell real trouble for the Democrats in 2010, they could provide some encouragement to the Republicans.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,013 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 1-4, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 906 registered voters, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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