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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

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Democrats Still Face An Unfavorable Environment, But They're Outperforming The Republicans Thus Far

May 25, 2010

As the first independent analyst to push the argument that Democrats would likely suffer significantly higher midterm losses than average for the party in power, I'm scratching my head over the 8-point Democratic margin of victory in the special election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.

Perhaps Democrats will suffer heavy, but not catastrophic, losses in November, losing fewer than 40 seats. In previous wave years, the macro trumped the micro; the national dynamics all too often prevailed over the mechanics; strong candidates lost to weak ones, and well-funded campaigns lost to less financially capable ones.

The macro-political argument for heavy Democratic losses remains convincing.

 

The DCCC seems to have cracked the code of how to organize, plan, message, get out the vote and execute in special elections.

Pollsters in both parties acknowledge the environment is treacherous for the party in power, comparable with what existed leading into the 1994 and 2006 elections.

Among the more reliable national surveys, the generic congressional ballot test has been averaging about even among registered voters. But when you factor in turnout enthusiasm, the diagnostic indicators point to significant GOP gains.

Going into last week with a 40-seat margin, 53 House Democrats were in seats that were held by Republicans either two or four years ago. Forty-eight Democrats were in districts won by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008.

When you factor in districts Democrats barely held onto or that President Obama won narrowly, it adds up to an unusual degree of exposure for the incumbent party.

Finally, you have to throw in the impact of high unemployment. In the 736 months the Bureau of Labor Statistics has gathered this data, there have only been 13 months that have been at the current 9.9 percent mark. There also has never been an entire election year of 9 percent or higher unemployment, as this year is almost certain to have, since the Great Depression.

Although no single district can be an accurate microcosm of a larger set of competitive districts, Pennsylvania's 12th District seemed to be a good example of a certain type. It is blue-collar with a mix of small towns, cities and rural areas. The Republican candidate was competent, well-funded and had a good story. Obama's job approval ratings in the district were below the national average. It might not have been a gimme, but it was a race the Republicans should have won. Not only did they lose, though, they lost by 8 points, just shy of the traditional 10-point yardstick of a landslide.

What happened? GOP strategists argue there was such an influx of base Democratic voters turning out for the Senate primary that their candidate, Tim Burns, didn't have a chance.

As an internal examination of the results by their pollster concluded, "The Democratic primary prevented the turnout depression we have seen in other races this year: 82,675 turned out to vote, making Election Day turnout 64.3 percent Democrat -- 35.6 percent Republican. This is overwhelmingly the most powerful factor impacting the results which makes this race different from other partisan contests held this year."

There is no dispute the Democratic Senate primary pulled in a large number of base Democrats. But where were those agitated Republicans, independents and what were once called Reagan Democrats? The Republican analysis seems to imply GOP victory is dependent upon Democratic vote depression, and for them to win, Democratic voters must be lethargic and not show up.

The GOP's "72-hour program," said to be the most sophisticated and effective voter identification and get-out-the-vote program in American politics, apparently was somewhere outside district borders. Republicans apparently won easily among stay-at-home non-voters.

The week before the special election, the Cook Political Report changed its rating of the race from "Lean Republican" to "Toss Up" after several weeks of off-track messaging by the Burns campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee, and other telltale signs the campaign had lost its way.

Whereas the ads of now-Rep. Mark Critz had the polished finish of A-list Democratic consultants, several of Burns' first ads were worthy of public access television and not much else.

Before Hawaii revealed its results on Saturday, Democrats had won 10 consecutive special elections since Obama took office, including three in competitive districts. (Saturday's win by GOP Rep.-elect Charles Djou doesn't mean anything, as Democrats won 61 percent of the total vote. It would be impressive only if the GOP won a one-on-one contest). Simply put, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seems to have cracked the code of how to organize, plan, message, get out the vote and execute in special elections. Fundamentals matter in campaigns, and one side has it down pat while the other side does not.

There are enormously talented Republican operatives; one has to look no further than now-Gov. Bob McDonnell's 2009 campaign in Virginia. No doubt there were some who were involved in Burns' effort.

But only one side had a first-class effort worthy of the importance of this race, which raises the question of whether Republicans can handle 70 or so races of this magnitude in November.

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