On the phone with a leading Republican strategist last week, I expressed surprise at his dour mood. “I thought you were confident,” I said. “That's when I thought Romney would run a competent campaign,” he lamented.
But after Mitt Romney's surprisingly strong showing in his first presidential debate of the general-election season, Republicans have a new spring in their step and renewed confidence in their ability to get down-ballot races back on track -- a reflection of just how bad things looked only a few weeks ago.
They were glum last month, when Romney's campaign gave Republicans a serious scare. The party’s lackluster convention in Tampa and frighteningly anemic poll numbers in key swing states had some of them fretting that their presidential nominee would harm the party’s hopes of taking back the Senate and limiting its losses in the House.
Then came a leaked video showing Romney’s comments at a closed-door fundraiser in May, footage that showed Romney disparaging the 47 percent of Americans who would not vote for him as “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it -- that, that's an entitlement.”
The comments cemented Democratic efforts to portray Romney as hopelessly out of touch with everyday Americans, an elite 1-percenter more concerned with the wealthy than the average Joe. But they resonated far beyond the presidential contest. Almost overnight, Republican House and Senate candidates saw their poll numbers take a stomach-turning drop.
In Virginia, polls showed Democrat Tim Kaine leaping to a significant lead over Republican George Allen. In Indiana, Rep. Joe Donnelly established a small lead over Republican state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin overtook former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Once-close Senate races in Florida and Ohio began to look out of reach. And Arizona Democrat Richard Carmona began to pull even with Republican Rep. Jeff Flake. The pattern repeated in House races across the country.
In short, Romney was on the brink of becoming a serious drag on the GOP ticket.
The across-the-board plummet helped reinforce the view that American elections are becoming more parliamentary in nature, in which voters' attitudes about the top of the ticket influence their views on down-ballot candidates of the same party. That Romney’s comments could hurt even well-known Republicans such as Thompson or Allen, or that President Obama could be a drag on red-state Democrats, hints at the electorate's increasingly rigid polarization.
But despite the hardening media narrative that Romney was toast and identical private fears among Republicans watching internal numbers, GOP candidates are slowly rebounding. And Romney's strong debate performance has given Republicans more reason to hope that the cake has yet to fully bake.
Public polling is slowly beginning to show some races tightening again. Baldwin’s lead over Thompson in Wisconsin has shrunk from 9 percentage points in mid-September to 4 points by the end of last week, according to a Marquette University poll. Some surveys are beginning to show Nevada Sen. Dean Heller putting distance between himself and Democrat Shelley Berkley. And polling shows a surprising single-digit race in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Bob Casey is still the heavy favorite to win a second term.
Internal Republican polling shows GOP candidates coming back in other states where they had dropped, according to several strategists who have seen the numbers.
Democrats are interpreting the numbers differently, and they don’t credit Romney's comments with their sudden buoyancy. They point to state-by-state factors -- effective attacks on Thompson in Wisconsin, Democrats coming home in Virginia and Massachusetts -- rather than larger national considerations.
But if Romney's comments made him an albatross last month, Republicans have a newfound faith in their candidate today. Even as the electorate becomes more polarized, Republicans have confidence that the top of their ticket won't be too much of a drag -- which it sure looked like last month.