With less than a year left until voters cast ballots, Republicans have staged a comeback and pulled slightly ahead in the midterm election races, according to a series of generic party preference polls in December.
The 10 polls are divided on which party will come out on top in the November elections, but the averages show Republicans top Democrats by about 0.3 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics. Many of the surveys show declines in Democratic support.
Although the difference is small, history suggests big headaches for President Obama's party.
"For Democrats now, this is pretty bad. Usually when you're this far out, Democrats tend to have an advantage," said Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "Is this a passing problem? We don't know."
The poll results may cause Democrats to re-evaluate their campaign strategies, especially by scaling back support for the president's troubled health care law, with its rocky rollout since October.
"What you're starting to see and may see more of assuming problems continue is Democrats will try to distance themselves [from Obamacare] or change their messaging a little bit," Mr. Hagle said. "You may see more Democrats more willing to make changes not only in rhetoric, but also in the law itself in terms of fixing some of the things people are unhappy about."
In these polls, respondents were asked whether they would vote for generic Republican candidates or generic Democratic candidates in their congressional districts if the elections were held today.
The most recent poll, released Thursday, found that Republicans have lengthened their lead over Democrats. According to the CNN/ORC International poll, 49 percent of respondents said they would vote for a Republican and 44 percent said they would vote for a Democrat. The survey, conducted Dec. 16-19, showed a turnaround since a 16-day partial government shutdown two months ago that many blamed on Republicans.
"The shift can be mostly attributed to the failure of Obamacare and the realization that Americans are going to pay more for their health care and have less access to doctors," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
Mr. Bonjean said he doesn't expect the shutdown to play a significant role in the midterm elections because Obamacare and the upcoming debate over whether to raise the federal borrowing limit will be fresher in voters' minds.
Polls from ABC News/Washington Post and Public Policy Polling conducted Dec. 12-15 favored Democrats. The Washington Post survey has Democrats ahead by 2 percentage points. A Pew Research poll conducted Dec. 3-8 found that 48 percent of respondents would vote for a Democrat and 44 percent would prefer a Republican.
Three polls this month from Fox News, Rasmussen Reports and McClatchy called the races a tie.
It's too early to use the poll results as good predictions of winners and losers on Election Day, especially because of evolving situations such as the Obamacare rollout.
"You can't use polls to predict election results a year from now any more than you can use Weather.com to decide if you should bring an umbrella that day," said Christy Setzer, a Democratic consultant. "Trend lines are more important than any one poll: If voters' feelings about Obamacare are down six months from now, that will say more than a snapshot two months after the rollout."
Republicans hold a 17-seat majority in the House and would need to win six seats from Democrats to win control of the Senate. Some Democrats in traditionally red states, including Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Sen. Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, are up for re-election.
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