Polling the Polls: Will They Be Right?

Most -- but not all -- of the final weekend national polls for the 2006 midterm elections found a narrower, single-digit Democratic lead in congressional preferences among voters.

It's 51-45 percent among likely voters in our ABC News/Washington Post poll completed on Saturday; an essentially identical 51-44 percent in a Gallup-USA Today poll completed Sunday; and 47-43 percent (with higher undecideds) in a Pew Research Center poll completed Saturday.

These differ from a CNN poll completed Sunday that has a 20-point Democratic lead. Similarly, Time and Newsweek polls completed Friday showed 15- to 16-point Dem. leads. In addition, a CBS News/New York Times poll completed last Tuesday showed an 18-point Democratic lead.

It's not easy to explain the CNN result in light of the concurrent ABC News/Post, Gallup and Pew polls. Likely voter modeling may explain some, but not all, of it. In any case, the weight of evidence in the most recent polls is that the race has tightened.

That's sensible. It reflects wavering but usually loyal Republican voters who have toyed with abandoning the party only to stay put. This fits with the dynamic of the campaign in which the Democrats have taken advantage of disenchantment with the Republicans without presenting clear policy alternatives of their own, particularly not on the fundamental issue, the war in Iraq.

In our poll this weekend, a majority of likely voters said the Democrats do not offer a clear direction that's different from the Republicans. The lack of a clear alternative makes the Democrats less sticky.

Public Still Believes Congress Isn't Working

That said, the public's basic mood has not changed.

Sixty percent of registered voters disapprove of how Congress is working, and 59 percent say the country's headed in the wrong direction. President Bush's 40 percent approval rating in our poll is the lowest for a president at midterm since 1950, and very close to Ronald Reagan's in 1982 (with unemployment then at a 42-year high). Truman and Reagan lost 29 and 26 seats, respectively, in those elections.

Moreover, as pointed out in our Sunday analysis, the Republicans won the national House vote by seven points -- not 16 or 20 -- in 1994, and that was enough to get them 52 seats. Neither party has won by 16 points since the immediate post-Watergate election of 1974.

The trend in voter preferences appears to occur where you'd most expect it -- among usual Republican voters returning home. The biggest of the shifts we noted this weekend were among married men, previously undecided independents and the financially better off.

It's still a 50-50 country in basic political sentiment. The long-term trends in political party identification are still toward convergence. That makes the six-point Democratic lead in our poll look impressive in its own right.

In the House, both national sentiment and ABC's Political Unit's intelligence suggest there will be significant gains for the Democrats. In the Senate, state polls indicate a continued close contest for control.

Fundamentally, the long-term trend in this country is still a 50-50 nation. And the short-term trend in this election is still one of unhappiness with the current Republican leadership, inspired by an unpopular war.