Democrats Well Positioned in Six Key Senate Races

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Hold largest leads in Maryland, Rhode Island

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- A series of USA Today/Gallup polls conducted in six states with competitive races for the U.S. Senate shows the Democratic candidate with a significant advantage or in a statistical tie with the Republican candidate in each state. Currently, the Democrat has a statistically significant lead in Maryland and Rhode Island, and smaller leads within the polls' margins of error in Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee. The Republican candidate has a slight lead in Virginia, but that, too, is within the poll's margin of error.

The results suggest that, if the election were held today, the Democrats would likely hold on to the seat they currently occupy in Maryland and gain a seat in Rhode Island, while having a strong opportunity to hold on to their New Jersey seat and pick up Republican-held seats in Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win back partisan control of the Senate after losing it in the 2002 midterm elections. In addition to the three states where Democrats could pick up a seat, Democrats are trying to gain Republican-held seats in Pennsylvania, Montana, and Ohio. Prior polling in those states by Gallup and other research firms has shown the Democrats with the advantage in each.

Gallup interviewed 1,000 residents of voting age in Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1. The results are reported based on the smaller sample of likely voters in each state.

Maryland

Long-time Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes is retiring, leaving an opening in this typically Democratic state. The state's Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is facing 10-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin in this election. The USA Today/Gallup poll shows Cardin with a 54% to 39% lead, well beyond the poll's ±5 percentage point margin of error. Cardin has a strategic advantage in that he currently represents the 3rd district in Maryland, which includes much of suburban Baltimore. That area is typically one in which Republican candidates have fared better than in other parts of the state, but Cardin's long-term service there is making it difficult for Steele to find the support he needs to win the election.

Rhode Island

Sen. Lincoln Chafee survived a tough challenge from a more conservative candidate in the Republican Party's primary, and now must win the general election in this typically Democratic state. The USA Today/Gallup poll indicates Chafee has an uphill climb, trailing Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse by a 50% to 39% margin, a statistically significant lead for Whitehouse.

Tennessee

Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is retiring, leaving his seat open. Earlier this year, it looked like a long shot for Democrats to take this seat, as several polls had Republican candidate Bob Corker enjoying double-digit leads in a state that typically leans Republican. However, recent polls show Congressman and Democratic candidate Harold Ford Jr., making a race of it. The USA Today/Gallup poll gives a slight advantage to Ford, 50% to 45%, although that lead is still within the poll's margin of sampling error.

Missouri

Further evidence of Democratic momentum is evident in the USA Today/Gallup poll in Missouri. Democrat Claire McCaskill is currently preferred by 48% of likely voters in that state, while 45% prefer the Republican incumbent, Sen. Jim Talent. When Gallup polled Missouri voters in late August, Talent had a 50% to 44% advantage, suggesting a shift in favor of McCaskill over the past month. Talent won a close election in 2002, and faces another tough challenge this year.

New Jersey

In what is shaping up as a strong Democratic year, the party faces a surprisingly difficult contest in New Jersey, a state that has become increasingly Democratic in recent years. That may be attributable to the fact that the state's majority party has been dogged by charges of corruption. Incumbent Sen. Jon Corzine was elected governor last year, and subsequently appointed then-U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez to serve out the remainder of his term. Menendez, trying to win election in his own right, is facing a strong challenge from Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., son of the popular former Republican governor. The USA Today/Gallup poll shows 46% of likely New Jersey voters favoring Menendez and 43% favoring Kean.

Virginia

Republican Sen. George Allen, believed by some to be a strong contender for the party's 2008 presidential nomination, now finds himself in danger of losing his Senate seat after several campaign missteps. Jim Webb, a former Republican and Reagan administration official, is the Democratic challenger. The USA Today/Gallup poll shows Allen with a slight edge, 48% to 45%, among likely voters in Virginia. That suggests Virginia is now a seventh state (in addition to Pennsylvania, Montana, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, and Rhode Island) where Democrats have a realistic chance of taking a Republican-held seat.

The Bush Effect

Polling leading up to the 2002 midterm elections suggested that things looked better for Democratic candidates than Republicans, but ultimately the Republicans made a late surge and managed to gain seats in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Some have attributed that late surge to campaigning from a popular President George W. Bush. Now, with Bush's approval ratings in the 40% range, he is viewed as more of a liability than an asset to Republicans in many parts of the country.

The polls confirm this. In each state, likely voters are more likely to say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes Bush than one who supports Bush. As such, Republican candidates in these competitive states may not want Bush to campaign on their behalf this year.

Likely Voters: More Likely to Vote for Candidate Who Supports or Opposes President Bush

Maryland

Missouri

New
Jersey

Rhode
Island

Tennessee

Virginia

%

%

%

%

%

%

Supports Bush

19

26

25

14

27

24

Opposes Bush

45

38

43

48

37

37

No difference

33

34

29

35

33

36

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 678 likely voters in Maryland, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. Based on past voting history in Maryland, turnout is assumed to be 40% of the voting age population.

Results are based on telephone interviews with 577 likely voters in Missouri, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. Based on past voting history in Missouri, turnout is assumed to be 40% of the voting age population.

Results are based on telephone interviews with 542 likely voters in New Jersey, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. Based on past voting history in New Jersey, turnout is assumed to be 35% of the voting age population.

Results are based on telephone interviews with 699 likely voters in Rhode Island, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. Based on past voting history in Rhode Island, turnout is assumed to be 40% of the voting age population.

Results are based on telephone interviews with 598 likely voters in Tennessee, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. Based on past voting history in Tennessee, turnout is assumed to be 35% of the voting age population.

Results are based on telephone interviews with 597 likely voters in Virginia, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. Based on past voting history in Virginia, turnout is assumed to be 35% of the voting age population.

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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