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President Barack Obama and the Democrats got clobbered by health care in recent weeks, George Stephanopoulos said on ABC’s This Week. He asked his experts on the show: "How do you see this playing out as we head toward the midterms next year?"
Democrats currently have about an 8-percentage point lead on what is called the "generic ballot" for the 2014 election, Stephanopoulos said. A generic ballot refers to a poll question that asks voters if the election were held today, would they vote for a Republican or a Democrat for Congress.
Stephanopoulos and his other guests -- ABC’s Jonathan Karl and 538 blogger Nate Silver -- noted that the recent polls about Obama’s approval rating and the generic ballot don’t necessarily predict the outcome of the 2014 elections.
"And you (know) on that point, if you look at where those numbers were before the Republican wave in 2010, Democrats had an advantage on the generic ballot in Congress," Karl said. "Even in 1994 with the Gingrich revolution. I mean you had, Democrats had that advantage. So it wasn't quite as big as it is now, but it wasn't much different."
We wondered about Karl’s history.
Karl sent us an email stating that he was citing ABC’s polls and emailed us results for registered voters dating back to 1994.
The question asked: "If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives were being held today, would you vote for (the Democratic candidate) or (the Republican candidate) in your congressional district?
In October 2013, the poll showed that Democrats had the advantage 48-40.
The 2013 results in some way mirrored the results of the poll from October 2009, a little more than a year before Republicans picked up six seats in the Senate and 63 in the House.
In October 2009, the ABC News poll showed Democrats leading 51-39.
But by February 2010, Republicans were ahead in the same poll 48-45. Democrats pulled back ahead through June, then Republicans led in July and early September. In the final days of October, Republicans were ahead 49-45.
Other polls asked the question as well, to slightly different results.
- Reuters/IPSOS: About a year before the election, Democrats were 1 percentage point ahead and the two parties remained fairly close for much of 2010.
- USA Today/Gallup: In October 2009, Democrats were ahead 46-44. Then the next month, Republicans were ahead. The numbers remained fairly close for much of 2010.
- CNN: About a year before election day, Democrats were ahead 50-44 among registered voters. During many points in 2010, Republicans were ahead. In the final days of October, Republicans were ahead 49-43.
In all three of the above polls, likely voters gave Republicans a significant edge in the homestretch.
It was more difficult to find polling prior to the 1994 election, which saw Republicans pick up 54 seats in the House and made the GOP the majority party for the first time since 1952.
Karl sent us the results of three ABC polls in the final weeks of the 1994 election which showed the Democrats ahead by 4 or 5 percentage points:
Gallup found between March and October 1994 that the advantage went back and forth between the two parties, and was close near the end. Twice in the final weeks, it was dead even.
Silver wrote in his fivethirtyeight blog that Gallup tends to show worse results for Democrats than other likely voter models. In 1994, Gallup gave the edge to Republicans while other polls gave the advantage to Democrats.
Relevance of generic ballot
We turned to political analyst Larry Sabato for an explanation of the relevance of generic ballots.
"The generic ballot is one important indicator of the likely outcome of U.S. House elections, though by itself it cannot predict which party will win control," Sabato said in an email. "It is also true that Democrats tend to have an edge on this measure."
The problem, according to Sabato, is that Democratic voters are "inefficiently distributed" and concentrated in urban, minority districts. As evidence, Sabato said Democratic candidates for Congress in 2012 received more votes than their Republican counterparts, yet Republicans won a majority of seats.
Karl used polling from before the 1994 and 2010 elections to emphasize that people shouldn’t read too much into the fact that Democrats currently hold a 48-40 lead among voters who are asked generically if they’d vote for a Democrat or Republican for Congress.
Karl is accurately citing ABC polling leading up to the 1994 and 2010 elections. Other polling we found does not contradict Karl’s statement.
We rate this claim True.
ABC This Week, Transcript, Nov. 3, 2013
Pollingreport.com, Election 2010, Accessed Nov. 3, 2013
Gallup, "Generic ballot provides clues for 2010 vote," Nov. 2, 2009
Fivethirtyeight blog, "The bias of the generic ballot: it’s complicated," Sept. 24, 2010
Washington Post GovBeat blog, "Democrats lead the generic ballot by 8. That’s not enough to win the majority," Oct. 22, 2013
PolitiFact, "Democratic exaggerations about ‘privatizing social security,’" Nov. 2, 2010
Interview, Jonathan Karl, ABC News' Chief White House Correspondent, Nov. 3, 2013
Interview, Heather M. Riley, ABC spokeswoman, Nov. 3, 2013
Interview, Larry Sabato, political analyst, Nov. 3, 2013
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