At the midway point of this midterm cycle, some of the country's top pollsters gathered in Washington to discuss what can and can't be discerned from the 2009 election results for the 2010 elections.
Most of them agreed on one key point, so let's get it out of the way now: Don't read too much into the Republican wins in New Jersey and Virginia. "Years after a presidential election tell us very little about the midterm election," said Peter Brown of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Brown was joined by Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports and Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling at a panel discussion hosted by CQ-Roll Call and emceed by Political Wire author Taegan Goddard. Greg Giroux, one of CQ-Roll Call's political writers, was also on the panel.
While the panelists were wary of overanalyzing the 2009 results, there did appear to be a consensus that Republicans have the momentum. One big part of that is voter anger at incumbents. "A lot of voters hate both political parties," Jensen said. He added that his research suggests that the majority of those voters are more likely to cast their ballots for Republicans next year, in large part because they are the party out of power.
Jensen added that another advantage for Republicans is changing attitudes among independents, which he said can be broken down into two camps. Independents that backed John McCain in last year's presidential are "more or less partisan Republicans." Barack Obama's independents, he went on, are stereotypical independents who are more likely to vote for either party.
Republicans may also have a "structural advantage" in next year's election, said Rasmussen. In 2008, Obama won the election in large part because of his support among voters under 40 years old. In midterm elections, older voters turnout more than younger voters, Rasmussen said. On top of that, older voters have been less receptive to healthcare reform, another reason why they may cast their ballots against Democrats next year. "The damage," Rasmussen said, "is done for Democrats."
Still, most of what was discussed broke down to the simple notion that politics is cyclical and, after two extremely successful elections for Democrats, Republicans are poised to bounce back. "It's not pro-Republican anger," said Rasmussen. "It's just frustration." "The Republicans' best argument is going to be that the Democrats are worse," added Jensen.
Republicans, Jensen also said, appear to be fired up, while Democrats appear to be complacent. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Virginia, where voters that helped propel Obama to victory last year didn't show up for the gubernatorial race.
Looking ahead to specific races, Brown provided perhaps the most interesting thought. The Quinnipiac pollster said two very vulnerable incumbent Democrats – Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Chris Dodd of Connecticut – have numbers that, even though they are from blue states, "are eerily similar to Jon Corzine's a year ago." Both have very low favorability numbers and score poorly when their constituents are asked if they deserve to be reelected.
Dodd is facing a cadre of Republican challengers – most notably former Rep. Rob Simmons and WWE CEO Linda McMahon. Specter is heading for a tough Democratic primarily with Rep. Joe Sestak and a general election against 2004 foe Pat Toomey.
In the end, Jensen summed up the session nicely when he remarked on the tendency to read too much into election results. "I think we need to be more cautious in the future, and I know that we aren't going to be – about saying that things are changed forever," he said.
Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer at Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org