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The one poll that Democrats need to care about most

Gerrymandering is a problem for Democrats. The generic ballot poll is a bigger problem. But the party isn't doomed just yet.

On the surface, Democratic candidates fared quite well in the 2020 elections, winning control of the White House and the U.S. Senate, while holding onto their majority in the U.S. House. But just below the surface, these gains did not translate into down-ballot successes — leaving Republicans in powerful positions in state offices nationwide.

The policy impact is obvious, but less obvious are the electoral effects: Voters left GOP officials in a position to exploit gerrymandering tactics when drawing district lines. The New York Times reports today that Republicans "are already poised" to erase their deficit in the House "thanks to redrawn district maps that are more distorted, more disjointed and more gerrymandered than any since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965."

In other words, a year out from the 2022 election cycle, the GOP is positioned to retake the House majority, even if the American electorate votes exactly the same way as it did it 2020, when it elected a Democratic majority. The Times' report characterized this as a dynamic in which the GOP could have "a nearly insurmountable advantage in the 2022 midterm elections."

But that's only part of the Democratic Party's challenge.

To be sure, it's a problem that Democrats are positioned to lose power even if voters cast ballots the same way they did a year ago. To overcome this structural hurdle, Democrats would likely need a substantial national advantage, since winning slightly more votes might still lead to less power.

The bigger problem is that the party's national advantage, at least for now, has disappeared. ABC News reported over the weekend on an important new poll:

Republican congressional candidates currently hold their largest lead in midterm election vote preferences in ABC News/Washington Post polls dating back 40 years, underscoring profound challenges for Democrats hoping to retain their slim majorities in Congress next year.

At this point four years ago, when Republicans had control of Congress and the White House, the Democratic advantage on the Post/ABC generic ballot was 11 points: 51 percent to 40 percent. Now, those numbers have flipped, and it's the GOP with a similar advantage: 51 percent to 41 percent among registered voters.

This is roughly in line with the latest national USA Today/Suffolk poll, which found Republicans with an 8-point lead.

In case this isn't obvious, if Democrats were ahead on the generic ballot by two or three percentage points, that would also be a problem for the party, because the lead would be too small to overcome the GOP's structural advantage, given the unlevel playing field.

But Democrats aren't up by a few points; they're down by double digits.

So, does this mean Republican leaders can start measuring the drapes in the Speaker's office and Democratic incumbents should start retiring in droves to save themselves the embarrassment of inevitable defeats? Not just yet.

First, let's not forget what the generic ballot is: These surveys ask voters for their general partisan preferences in congressional elections, without referencing any specific names of candidates. It's why it's called a "generic" ballot — respondents are saying whether they're inclined to support a Democratic or Republican candidate without knowing anything about those candidates themselves.

But when voters actually cast their ballots, they'll be choosing from actual candidates, not generic party labels, and the more extremists and scandal-plagued candidates win GOP primaries, the more likely it will affect the results.

Second, Republicans aren't ahead because they're popular — there's nothing in the ABC/Post poll to suggest Americans are buying what the GOP is selling — they're ahead because much of the country is unsatisfied with the status quo at a time when Democrats control the reins of power.

The good news for Democrats is that there's nothing normal about the status quo, which is likely to look quite different a year from now. As we recently discussed, the Covid-19 crisis will likely look a lot different 12 months from now. So will the effects of the pandemic on the economy. So will the supply chain. So will inflation rates. With any luck, Democrats might even have an improved legislative record to run on ahead of the next Election Day — and the Post/ABC poll showed fairly strong support for Biden's agenda.

MSNBC's Chris Hayes made a point on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that continues to resonate: "My unified theory of American social and political life is that we've lived through and are living through a once-in-a-century trauma/disruption and the results of that are going to reverberate throughout almost every facet of politics for a while."

I think that's right. I also think this once-in-a-century trauma/disruption is temporary, and as the United States enters a different phase a year from now, the political landscape will change.

That's not to say Democrats should be complacent or optimistic. But their polling deficit doesn't necessarily mean the party is facing inevitable doom.