Gallup’s astonishing numbers and the Lake Superior congressional districts

Late yesterday, Gallup came out with new numbers on the generic ballot question—which party’s candidates would you vote for in the election for House of Representatives? Among registered voters Gallup shows Republicans ahead by 46%-42%, about as good a score as Republicans have ever had (and about as bad a score as Democrats have ever had) since Gallup started asking the question in 1942.

However, Gallup also shows the results for two different turnout models. Under its “high turnout model” Republicans lead 53%-40%. Under its “low turnout model” Republicans lead 56%-38%.

These two numbers, if translated into popular votes in the 435 congressional districts, suggest huge gains for Republicans and a Republican House majority the likes of which we have not seen since the election cycles of 1946 or even 1928. For months, people have been asking me if this year looks like ’94. My response is that the poll numbers suggest it looks like 1994, when Republicans gained 52 seats in a House of 435 seats. Or perhaps somewhat better for Republicans and worse for Democrats. The Gallup high turnout and low turnout numbers suggest it looks like 1894, when Republicans gained more than 100 seats in a House of approximately 350 seats.

Having said that, caution is in order. Gallup’s numbers tend to be volatile. Its procedures for projecting likely turnout are very sensitive to transitory responses. They’re useful in identifying shifts in the balance of enthusiasm. But they can overstate the swings to one party or the other.  Scott Rasmussen’s latest generic ballot numbers among likely voters show Republicans with only a 45%-42% lead, much less than the 48%-38% lead he reported two days ago. That’s based on a three-day average, indicating Democrats fared relatively well on the most recent night of interviewing. Perhaps Barack Obama’s attempts to gin up enthusiasm among Democratic voters are bearing fruit. Or perhaps one night’s results were an anomaly. Polling theory tells us that at least one out of 20 polls is simply wrong, that is, the results differ from what you would get from interviewing the entire population by more than the margin of error.

The realclearpolitics.com average of recent generic ballot polls, with the Gallup likely voter results factored in, shows Republicans ahead by 48%-42%, which is similar to what we’ve seen for the past week or two.

But we do keep seeing poll results from surprising districts that tend to support the Gallup results. Last week I pointed to a poll (from a pollster I don’t know) showing an even race in North Carolina 7 between Republican Ilario Pantano and 14-year Democratic incumbent Mike McIntyre, who won his 2008 race, in which he had an active Republican opponent, with 69% of the vote. Now Ed Morrissey directs our attention to a poll by Public Opinion Strategies, a highly respected Republican firm, in Minnesota 8 showing 36-year incumbent James Oberstar leading Republican challenger Chip Cravaacke by only 45%-42%, within the margin of error.

John McCormack has a good post in the Weekly Standard’s blog on this. Oberstar was first elected in 1974, he is Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and has brought public dollars to an economically chronically ailing district. He was reelected in 2008 with 68% of the vote. But this is also a district that, despite containing the Democratic strongholds of Duluth and much of the Iron Range (both in St. Louis County) that voted only 53% for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. However, at its southern end it includes Isanti and Chisago Counties, exurban counties in the Twin Cities metro area, which despite a Democratic heritage have trended away from Democrats in recent elections—toward Jesse Ventura in 1998 and toward Republicans between 2000 and 2008, when they both voted for John McCain.

Minnesota 8 has a certain historic resonance for Democrats. It was one of only two or three districts (I am away from my desk where I have my papers and sources on this) which in the Republican landslide year of 1946 switched from a Republican to a Democratic congressman. This was a move away from progressive and isolationist Republicans (like Alvin O’Konski in the adjoining then-10th District of Wisconsin) toward labor-backed Democrats (completed in the Wisconsin case by the victory of young Democrat David Obey over O’Konski when they were redistricted together in 1972). Only two Democrats have represented Minnesota 8 ever since, John Blatnik, first elected in 1946 and for whom Oberstar worked as a staffer, and since 1974 Oberstar; only one Democrat, David Obey, has represented what is now Wisconsin 7 since 1969. For Oberstar to have a serious challenge, much less to be in danger of defeat, is quite astonishing. If these numbers are right—and like all poll numbers they are subject to some degree of doubt—they tend to confirm the Gallup likely voter numbers.

As for Obey, he has chosen to retire this year at age 72, and Republican Sean Duffy is waging a serious campaign for the district. These are two American congressional districts that touch on Lake Superior, that huge and cold forboding body of water over which the great freighters filled with iron ore have sailed in the ice-free months, from Duluth to the steel factories in Gary, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo. In the third of these districts, Michigan 1, Republican Dan Benishek looks like the favorite to take the district being vacated by Democrat Bart Stupak.

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