After the government shutdown, there was a rush of polling showing generic Democrats beating Republican incumbents. These polls were used as proof by Democrats that they could take back the House, and were used in countless fundraising emails. However, these polls must be taken with a grain of salt. Why?
Generic often means ideal.
In the 2010 and 2012 elections, many Senate seats should have gone to Republicans. Generic polling put incumbents like Sen. Claire McCaskill in a tough position for re-election. Sen. McCaskill was seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. However, that differed greatly from the actual result because generic is different than a campaign. A generic candidate never has to run a campaign, worry about gaffes, run to one side in a primary, or pander to interest groups. Most of the time, generic just means different. If a poll responder doesn’t like his or her representative, logically they would support the opponent. Generic polls allow pollsters to test voters even without having a candidate. That is done by being vague. However, just like in writing, vague is not good. Vague is playing it safe. Vague is never as good as it seems. Just ask Sen. Claire McCaskill, who got re-elected by a large margin over Todd Akin.