Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Contrary to surveys showing the Democrats leading Republicans in this year's congressional races, a new analysis finds the GOP could be ahead among people who actually vote.

In a stunning admission by a major independent polling firm that generic party-preference polls of registered voters can skew the results against the GOP, a Gallup Poll analyst says Republicans could edge out Democrats by as much as 3 percent to 4 percent at this point in the 2006 election cycle.

This finding in Gallup's analysis was buried in the fine print of the polling firm's Web site last week, but its candid conclusion shocked top GOP party strategists when I told them about it.

Here's the story:

Last week, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll reported that the Democrats led Republicans by 50 percent to 43 percent among registered voters if the elections were held today. That seven-point advantage would be enough to give Democrats control of the House if all their supporters participated in the elections.

But in an analysis of the results, Gallup analyst David W. Moore said, "It is likely many voters will not do so" because turnout among registered voters tends to be lower than among "likely voters," who say they plan to vote and usually do in larger numbers.

Moore writes -- and this is the important part -- that Gallup's "experience over the past two midterm elections, in 1998 and 2002, suggests that the [registered voters'] numbers tend to overstate the Democratic margin by about 10-1/2 percentage points."

"Given that Democrats currently lead by seven points, that could mean that among people who will definitely vote, Republicans actually lead by three to four points," he said.

That conclusion, after months of unending reporting here that the Bush administration and the Republicans are imploding politically and in a free fall in the polls, comes under the heading of "Wow."

Republican political strategists have long maintained that the so-called generic numbers, by which voters are asked to choose the party they will support in the elections without mentioning a specific candidate, tilt the results in favor of the Democrats. Worse, the stories that report them rarely mention that voter behavior between registered voters and likely voters is vastly different.

That Gallup would flatly declare this distinction in a separate analysis took Republican professionals by surprise last week. "It's an amazing, very rare admission," said Wes Anderson, a veteran GOP pollster at OnMessage Inc. "Republican pollsters have argued for the last couple of decades that the generic congressional polls always overstate the Democrats' participation.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.