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.

"There are two distinct universes in polling, people who are registered and people who vote. So if you are not polling people who are likely to vote, who have a history of voting, you are going to misread the electorate," Anderson told me.

However, he and other Republicans still think their party will suffer some congressional erosion in November. Most experts do, though they note the election is more than eight months away and that's the interstellar equivalent of a million light-years in political terms, when anything can and usually does change.

Nevertheless, Anderson said, "If the election were held today, it looks like Democrats will make marginal gains; but their hope of taking the House or Senate is a pretty long shot."

Still, some independent election trackers think the pessimistic mood of the country favors the Democrats this year -- and they point to increasing voter disapproval of Congress, the lobbying scandal, the Iraq war, a sour taste among voters about the economy and now the flap over letting an Arab-owned company manage shipping-terminal operations at six major U.S. ports.

"Democrats have the potential for major gains (even taking the House), but their current prospects are somewhat lower," election analyst Stu Rothenberg told his newsletter clients last month. He's predicting that Democrats will pick up from four to eight seats in the House. They need to win 15 to take control.

Midterm elections in a president's second term usually do not favor the party in power, and that may prove to be the case this year, too.

Even so, President Bush and his party have some things going for them that could affect the congressional election outcome in their favor:

First, terrorism will remain a huge issue, and polls show voters trust the Republicans more than liberal Democrats to protect their national security. Second, only two dozen or three dozen House races are truly competitive, and thus far the Democrats' candidate recruitment drive has been a significant disappointment. Third, forget about generic questions, 60 percent of the voters continue to believe their member of Congress should be re-elected.

But Moore's analysis suggests that the Democrats face an even biggest obstacle right now: Republicans are likely leading among people who actually vote.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.