Opinion Pollster Cites Uncertainties in U.S. Midterm Election

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The race between the Democratic and Republican parties for control of the U.S. Congress still is too unpredictable to call and will depend on a substantial number of "undecided" voters who increasingly have become an important factor in U.S. elections, says pollster John Zogby.

Zogby, president and chief executive officer of the Zogby International polling firm, briefed reporters October 25 at the State Department's Foreign Press Center about the upcoming midterm elections - called midterm because they occur in the middle of the U.S. president's four-year term of office.

All 435 members of the House of Representatives, one-third of the 100 Senators and 36 state governors will be voted into office in the November 7 election.

Currently, President Bush's Republican Party controls the House with a 15-seat majority. In the Senate, there are now 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and one Independent.  Republicans have controlled the House since 1994.

On the November 7 races, Zogby said, "I'm being very, very careful" because "there's a lot of liquidity out there … and potential for fluctuations on both sides."  But even with "undecideds" making some close contests difficult to predict, the pollster said he believed the Democrats could pick up between eight and 40 seats in the House after all ballots were counted.

A glimmer of hope for Republicans, Zogby said, is that while Democrats are leading in a number of important congressional races, according to his poll results, "the leads are not substantial."  Also, there has not been "an enormous amount of enthusiasm on the part of Democratic voters" and "no distinct message" by their party on the economy or foreign policy.

"If the elections were held today, the Democrats would pick up 25-30 seats in the House and at least four seats in the Senate giving Democrats control of the House," Zogby told reporters. "But, the elections are not today.  There are still between 15 and 20 percent of voters who are undecided." Candidates now are focused on these undecided voters in the final two weeks of the campaign, he added.

The Republicans might have an advantage in that category, Zogby said.  For example, 20 percent of “born-again Christians” - a traditional Republican constituency - are undecided as well as 22 percent of married voters who also have tended to vote Republican.

Zogby said many of these voters became disenchanted with the war in Iraq, which has become the most divisive issue in the election "sucking all the air out of other issues."  But, "If we start to see some of these groups coming back to the Republican fold" there could be dramatic results and fewer seats lost to Democrats.

Even though countless local contests also are taking place in the midterm elections, foreign reporters peppered Zogby with questions about the congressional races because of the impact on foreign policy that a change in the leadership of key committees in the House and Senate could portend.

For Zogby a change in congressional leadership would have an almost "immediate impact" on domestic affairs.  "Suppose the Democrats do get the House - look for more investigative hearings.  Look for a thorough investigation of the war [in Iraq]."

On public policy, Zogby said, "look for the president to exercise his veto power [over legislation from the Democratic-controlled Congress] many, many more times."

Asked about ethnic voting in the elections, Zogby said Jewish-American voters most likely would continue to vote on a liberal basis, giving Democrats about 75 percent of their votes.  Muslims increasingly are showing their power at the ballot box, he added, and their 500,000 votes also will trend toward Democratic candidates, he said.

This election is unique, Zogby added, because it looks as though the House may get its first Muslim member - Keith Ellison who is running for a House seat representing Minnesota.

Hispanic voters also make up an important bloc and an interesting "realignment" of their vote might be in the offing, Zogby said. Polls after the 2004 election - called "exit polls" - showed that 40 percent of Hispanics voted for President Bush, a respectable percentage.  But in 2006, "Watch for the Republicans to do very poorly among Hispanic voters," he told journalists.

Asked how women's votes factored into the elections, Zogby said, "they tilt Democrat but, very importantly, there's less and less of a gender gap than there was in the late 1980s and much of the 1990s.  The real gap is between married voters and single voters.  And that translates into a world of difference between married women, who generally tilt conservative, versus single women who are very liberal."  With that said, Zogby stated, "We're seeing a high [number of] undecided [votes] among women voters."

Asked to what extent polling itself influenced voters' choices, Zogby downplayed the impact.   He said most voters focus on "issues, personalities and advertising and less so to who's ahead and who's not ahead."  He said one could make the case that "the only time a poll really matters is very early in an election" when a potential candidate commissions a poll to gauge his popularity.  "If the poll shows he only gets 3 percent of the vote, that campaign is going to find it very hard to raise money [to pay for a campaign]."

Zogby's firm gauges public opinion among prospective voters for political candidates and the news media including Reuters, NBC News and Gannett News Service.  Zogby holds a degree in history from Syracuse University and is a public policy adviser to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

For additional information, see 2006 Midterm Elections.