Late shift appears to favor GOP
By Richard Benedetto, USA TODAY
Key Senate races in Tuesday's congressional elections are too close to call, but Republicans appear to have gained strength in the final weekend as they fight to retain and perhaps add to their thin House majority.
A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll this weekend shows that in House races, likely voters prefer Republicans to Democrats 51% -45%.
That marks a 9-point shift from two weeks ago, when Democrats led Republicans 49%-46%.
The GOP's 6-point advantage mirrors the lead Republicans held in the final days of the 1994 election, when they won control of the House of Representatives and Senate.
Frank Newport, Gallup Poll editor in chief, says the late GOP gain can be traced to three factors:
Jitters over the economy are declining. The poll found that those who said the economy was getting worse fell from 59% two weeks ago to 51% now.
"Democrats were counting on worry about the economy to boost them, and that decreased in the last two weeks," Newport said.
More Republicans than Democrats say they're more enthusiastic about voting than they were in the last off-year election in 1998.
Of those who said President Bush was a factor in their vote, respondents said 2-1 they were voting in favor of Bush, not against him. His job approval is 63%.
Control of the House is determined by the outcomes of 435 races, but what's known as the "generic ballot question" — which party's candidate will you vote for? — has been an accurate predictor of the House majority for 50 years.
Last-minute shifts are still possible as voters become more focused and party organizations gear up a get-out-the-vote push.
Labor unions and African-American churches tend to be most effective at mobilizing voters, which traditionally benefits Democrats. "But Republicans are more dependable voters," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. As candidates make their final push, the Senate campaign has come down to a handful of states. About 40 House districts still are considered tossups.
The tightness of the election is evident in five key states where USA TODAY measured Senate races. Four of the five are well within the polls' error margins:
In Missouri, Republican former congressman Jim Talent leads Sen. Jean Carnahan 48%-44%.
In Colorado, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard leads Democrat Tom Strickland 47%-45%.
In South Dakota, GOP congressman John Thune leads Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson 48%-45%.
In New Hampshire, Republican Rep. John Sununu leads Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen 46%-45%.
In Arkansas, Democrat Mark Pryor leads Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson 51%-43%.
The state polls of 600 or more likely voters Wednesday-Saturday had error margins of +/- 4 points.
In the Senate, the parties are split 49-49 with one independent. Republicans hold a 223-208 House majority, with one independent.