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Voters Indicate Tight Race for Congress

PRINCETON, NJ -- U.S. registered voters are currently split in their intentions to vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate in their congressional district, with 47% saying they would vote for each "if the elections for Congress were being held today." This reflects a more competitive race for control of the House than was seen last year.

If the elections for Congress were being held today, which party's candidate would you vote for in your congressional district -- [ROTATE: the Democratic Party's candidate or the Republican Party's candidate]? (If undecided or other) As of today, do you lean more toward -- [ROTATE: the Democratic Party's candidate or the Republican Party's candidate]?

These results, from a Feb. 16-19 USA Today/Gallup poll, are slightly more even than two previous measures from December and August of last year, which showed Democratic advantages of four and seven percentage points, respectively. The current divide on this congressional vote measure reflects a similar divide found when Americans are asked about voting in the presidential election, underscoring the possibility of close elections on both fronts next fall.

At about this point in the 2010 election cycle, Democrats led by a three-point margin on the generic ballot. Things changed as the year progressed, however, and Republicans moved consistently into the lead by October. Aided by higher turnout, the Republicans went on to gain a net total of 63 seats in the House, the largest such gain for the party since 1938.

Democrats averaged an 11-point lead over Republicans among registered voters in Gallup generic ballot tests in 2006, when they won control of the House, and 10 points in 2008, when they expanded their majority.

Democrats would need to pick up 25 seats this year in order to regain control of the House.

The Potential Impact of the Presidential Election

The vote for Congress this year will inevitably be intertwined with the dynamics of the high-profile presidential contest. If President Barack Obama, perhaps buoyed by an improving economy, is swept back into office by a sizable margin in the national popular vote, then the probability of Democratic victories at the House level should increase, at least marginally. On the other hand, if the presidential race remains close, or if Obama loses, then Democratic House candidates may be more in jeopardy.

However, recent election results show that winning incumbent presidents don't necessarily carry with them big margins for their party in the House elections. In 2004, when George W. Bush won re-election, the Republicans gained just three seats. In 1996, Bill Clinton won re-election, but Democrats picked up only four House seats. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was swept back into office in a decisive victory over Democrat Walter Mondale, but the GOP picked up a relatively modest 16 seats.

Bottom Line

At this point, Gallup's congressional ballot measure is tied, underscoring the divided nature of the political landscape in America. But much can and will change in the months ahead. The final outcome of the congressional elections in 2012 will depend on changes in the overall political climate, the way in which the presidential election unfolds, the direction of the economy, and perhaps other factors not yet known.

Survey Methods

Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 16-19, 2012, with a random sample of 1,014 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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