The Upshot

Positive signs for the GOP as primaries end, but voters remain unpredictable

Holly Bailey
The Upshot

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On Saturday, voters will head to the polls in Hawaii, marking the end of what, by all accounts, was one of the most tumultuous midterm primary seasons in nearly two decades. But with just over six weeks to go before Election Day, are we really any closer to knowing exactly what voters will do on November 2nd?

Poll after poll over the last three months has suggested that Republicans are in position to benefit from what could potentially be a political tsunami — the most dramatic change election to strike Washington since the 1994 campaign, when the GOP stunned the nation by reclaiming majority control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

But there's a reason the architect of that so-called '94 Republican Revolution was on Capitol Hill this week warning the GOP not to celebrate victory just yet. "Any of you who think this is locked, just doesn't get it," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told rank-and-file Republicans in a private meeting, according to an account leaked to CQ. "You have a machine on the other side … trying to take one candidate at a time."

Add to that an angry electorate that, in primary after primary, has opted to embrace change  in defiance of all prudent calculations of political risk.  Look no further than Tuesday's election results in Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell, a virtually unknown tea party candidate, took out Rep. Mike Castle, a longtime Republican incumbent who had been nearly guaranteed to flip a Democratic-held Senate seat to the GOP. One message of the O'Donnell upset was clearly that the schism between the tea party and the GOP is widening. But the larger message — which applies to Republicans and Democrats alike — is that incumbents this November simply aren't safe, no matter the party they belong to.

[Photos: More of political unknown Christine O'Donnell]

Even as  the GOP continues to pick up momentum in the polls ahead of November, surveys have also hinted that we still don't really have a handle on what voters might do. There are at least two things we do know from polls out this week: Voters are increasingly anxious over the economy, and they are mad at virtually everybody in Washington — President Obama and both political parties in Congress.

A CBS/New York Times poll released Thursday found a narrow plurality of Americans — 47 percent — disapprove of the job President Obama is doing, while 51 percent disapprove of his handling of the economy. But that's nothing compared to the antipathy that Americans reserve for members of Congress. Lawmakers in Washington now boast a near-record 70 percent disapproval rating. Broken down by party, 58 percent disapprove of congressional Democrats, while even more — 68 percent — disapprove of Republicans.

Asked whom they will vote for this fall, voters favored Republicans by just 2 points — 40 percent to 38 percent for the Dems, with 8 percent saying they're still undecided. Asked about the jobs of "most members" of Congress, 78 percent say it's time for new blood on Capitol Hill. But when asked about their own member of Congress — whom voters customarily give the benefit of the doubt — only 34 percent say their current representative deserves re-election. That's the highest number recorded in the poll in 20 years — and definitely not good for Republicans, who, in order to win control of Congress,  not only need to pick up seats but also to retain the districts they currently control.

While their approval rating is nothing to be proud of, Democrats see an opening in voters' strong disapproval of the GOP — and the electorate's doubts about the Republicans' ability to turn the country around. According to the NYT/CBS poll, 72 percent of likely voters don't think the GOP has a "clear plan for solving the nation's problems."

But this is where voters send mixed messages. While most surveys indicate Americans by and large don't believe the GOP can fix the economy, a separate Associated Press/GfK poll found that a plurality — 46 percent — say they'd rather have Republicans in charge of handling the economy.

Such mixed results suggest that the 2010 elections might not come down to questions of competence in handling major issues such as the economy — rather, the November balloting may well hinge on the question of which side has better success in turning out voters to the polls. Last week, surveys across the board found that Republicans still maintain a significant advantage when it comes to so-called voter enthusiasm, which is generally a sign of who will turn out to vote.

According to the AP/GfK poll, just 26 percent of Democrats said they are "excited" about politic — down nearly 60 percent since November 2008, when Obama won the White House. If Democrats are to stave off major losses in November, the party will have to dramatically turn those numbers around — a feat that won't be easy in 46 days.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

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