|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Just when partisan Democrats were finally allowing themselves to revel in the expectation that they would sweep the House and maybe win the six seats needed for control of the Senate, two national polls released Sunday seemed to sound the first ominous notes from the theme music from "Jaws."
Both polls showed the gap between Democrats and Republicans dramatically narrowing when likely voters were asked which party they intended to support for Congress. The Washington Post-ABC News poll had the Democrats leading by a 51-to-45-percent margin on the generic ballot question. A new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press had the Democrats ahead among likely voters by 47 to 43 percent. Two weeks ago the margin was 50 to 39 percent. And both surveys put George W. Bush's approval rating above 40 percent, a rare high-water mark for the beleaguered president.
"The narrowing of the Democratic lead raises questions about whether the party will win a large enough share of the popular vote to recapture control of the House of Representatives," the Pew Research Center stated in releasing the poll. Because the Democratic vote is clustered in many one-sided inner-city congressional districts, analysts believe that the Democrats need a 5- or 6-point spread on the generic ballot to translate that margin into the 15-seat pickup that would make Nancy Pelosi speaker.
What is going on here?
If you turned on the talking-head shows on Sunday morning television, you would have heard more talk about tsunamis than at a convention of Asian weather forecasters. This has been a year when aquatic metaphors about Democratic tidal waves and flood tides have replaced the usual horse-race analogies that dominate political discourse. But could the widely forecast Democratic sea surge amount to just a few gentle waves lapping on the shores of the Republican majority?
That is the puzzle 48 hours before the actual votes begin rolling in. State and local polls -- especially for those House races in which reliable survey data is available -- still point to a dramatic Democratic sweep. Interviews about individual House districts with campaign operatives, political science professors and other experts from around the country point toward the same win-back-the-House conclusion. But in covering politics, there is always a danger that comes from sticking with the conventional wisdom a beat too long if the public mood suddenly begins to shift.
There have been discrepancies between national polls and local data before. "I keep thinking back to 1980 when state-by-state polls in the Washington Post proved to be more accurate than those on the national level," said Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to the national poll takers who missed the extent of the Reagan landslide. Still, in a conversation Sunday after the Pew poll was released, she recommended being "a little cautious" in making any sweeping predictions in light of the contradictory data. A Democratic pollster also said, "The tightening is to be expected since the Republicans are getting their base back."