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Better Days Ahead for Democrats?

The recent Gallup analysis of Democrats' chances of voting for John McCain in the fall has generated substantial discussion since we released the report on Wednesday.

The results certainly suggest that the Democrats are being hurt -- at least at the moment. Regardless of the nominee in hypothetical general election trial heats, a significant percentage of Democratic voters peel off and say they would vote for McCain. The defection rate is between 19% and 28%, depending on whether the candidate is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. This is higher than the traditional pattern of about 10% crossover voting. In our recent Gallup polls, for example, about 8% to 10% of Republicans say they would vote for the two Democratic candidates in hypothetical November trial heat ballots.

Even with this pattern of Democratic defection, John McCain and the two Democratic candidates end up being roughly tied in Gallup's general election trial heats. The two Democrats lose support from members of their own party, but they gain enough support from independents and some Republicans to make up for this loss and even out the race.

Many indicators suggest that the Democrats actually should be ahead on the general election ballot. Democrats do better than Republicans do on so-called "generic ballots," in which voters are asked which party's presidential candidate they want to win in November (without specific candidate names).The Democratic Party has a higher favorable rating than the Republican Party. Party identification with the Democratic Party is running significantly higher than party identification with the Republican Party. Democrats are much more enthusiastic about voting than Republicans this fall. And so forth.

So it is apparent that one of the reasons why the Democrats are not doing as well as would be expected is because they have a higher than normal defection of their party identifiers who are switching and voting for McCain. The Democrat Party may be particularly vulnerable given McCain's strong appeal to independents and even to a non-trivial proportion of Democrats. (At this point, McCain's overall favorable ratings among the general population are higher than either Obama's or Clinton's.)

There are two scenarios going forward:

First, there is the possibility that the animosity toward the "other" candidate continues through Election Day, hurting the Democrats in November -- as the data are suggesting is the case today. I think this is the scenario that concerns Democratic Party leaders. In other words, the acrimony that exists between Clinton and Obama supporters (as our crossover voting data show) could become so hardened (if, for example, the fight continues right up to the Denver convention in late August) that it lasts right into the November election. At the least, lingering animosity could hurt motivation and turnout.

Then, there is a cheerier scenario for the Democrats.

The animosity could "heal" once the Democratic nominee is determined. Democrats' voting patterns could spring back to more normal parameters (i.e., no more than about 10% crossover voting). In other words, Clinton nomination supporters could eventually move to a point where they nearly all vote for Obama next November (if he is the nominee) or vice versa for Obama nomination supporters.

I talked about this scenario in Gallup's initial analysis of the data. To the degree that this occurs, some of the "natural" Democratic vote would be released back to the Democratic candidates, moving the general election contest more in the Democratic direction. As professor Bob Ericson of Columbia indicated in a recent e-mail, it may be that the current general election trial heat data represent a floor for the Democrats, with the probability that they may gain once the Democratic contest is settled. In other words, there is pent-up support among Democrats waiting to be released once the nomination is settled.

Of course, no one knows what is going to happen. That's what makes it so fascinating. But the data don't necessarily spell bad news for the Democrats if they can figure out a way to resolve who the nominee will be in a way that Clinton and Obama supporters find mutually acceptable.

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