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Tipping Point?

Not yet, but Republican leaders face risk that conservative base could spur voter backlash.


In this Dec. 1, 2011 photo, job seekers attend a career fair in Overland Park, Kan. The unemployment rate fell last month to its lowest level in more than two and a half years, as employers stepped up hiring in response to the slowly improving economy.(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

When speaking with me about politics, one of my good friends will sometimes follow up with the question, “OK, now, Charlie, if you are wrong, why are you wrong?” For well over 40 years, this friend has been involved in markets, politics, and policy on Wall Street and inside presidential administrations. This individual knows that no matter how closely anyone watches Washington and politics, and no matter how objective one tries to be, anyone can be and is occasionally wrong. Call it a professional hazard.

But asking yourself, “if I’m wrong, why am I wrong?” is a very useful exercise. It makes someone examine his assumptions and evidence, looking for weak spots and creating a self-imposed alert system. The individual is forced to carefully watch if an assumption is looking less convincing and if the evidence starts pointing in a different direction. My assumption is for a much, much closer presidential election than the latest Intrade odds (currently giving President Obama a 59.6 percent chance of winning) or the averages of major polls, which generally show Obama with a low single-digit lead over presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney. ( has Obama up by six-tenths of a point, 46.8 percent to 46.2 percent; shows a 3.3 percent Obama lead, 47.5 percent to 44.2 percent; and Gallup’s tracking survey through Sunday night shows a 1-point difference, 47 percent to 46 percent.)


The fight for a majority in the Senate looks very much to be a 50-50 proposition (there’s no chance of either party reaching any semblance of operational control of the chamber.) Republicans could pick up as few as two seats or as many as five. A gain of three or four seems most likely. Keep in mind that with so few states actually in play -- roughly a dozen -- a party could and often does win three or four close seats by a combined total of 100,000 votes or fewer, creating an almost randomness to the outcome. The closest Senate races also often break in the same direction: One party disproportionately wins most of the closest races, in a way that polls in individual races can never predict.

The presidential election and the Senate outlook both appear quite close. Either party doing well in one or both is entirely possible, but not predictable at all. Keep in mind that even when Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won 49-state landslides in 1972 and 1984, respectively, their party in each case suffered a net loss of two seats. There is no guarantee that the presidential and Senate arrows will be pointing in the same direction.

In the House, Republicans look to have about a 75 percent chance of retaining their majority. The odds are very high, actually higher, though, that they will lose a few seats, probably in the five to 10, maybe in the 15, range. Having scored historic, almost biblical gains of 63 net seats in 2010 (the most for either party since 1948 and the most in a mid-term election since 1938), Republicans are somewhat overexposed, with some losses being inevitable. GOP losses won’t likely be nearly proportional to their 2010 gains. Two years ago, some of their wins were, in effect, the reclaiming of seats that they lost in back-to-back horrific elections for them in 2006 and 2008. Also, the retirement of a number of conservative Democrats, notably Blue Dogs in the South, border South, and in disproportionately rural and small-town districts, will offset potential suburban gains elsewhere.


Veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg offers up an alternative view. Noting the polls of his own firm and plenty of others, Stan points to signs that, while the Democratic Party’s brand has it’s own issues with favorable-unfavorable and positive-negative gaps (different pollsters test these things in various ways), invariably, the GOP has higher unfavorables and negatives than favorables and positives. Likewise, this applies to comparisons of “Democrats in Congress” and “Republicans in Congress.” It would seem that, in the minds of independents (and to a lesser extent in those of others), Democrats have not covered themselves in glory. The GOP brand has taken on considerably more water.

Greenberg’s theory is that it is not one thing but the combination of factors. In some states, notably in Wisconsin and Ohio, actions by Republican governors and state legislatures pushed way too far. They took positions and pushed policies that looked extreme to many non-ideological independent voters, sometimes rubbing moderate Republicans the wrong way as well. Then there is Washington, where Greenberg argues that Republicans -- particularly Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and his budget, nearly universally embraced by fellow party members in Congress -- come across as too ideological or too harsh. Finally, there was the overheated rhetoric in the 20 or 21 Republican presidential debates. It was a conversation clearly aimed at the party base but overheard by other voters, who found much of the talk more than a little exotic for their tastes. Each of the eight GOP presidential contenders, in an August debate sponsored by Fox News, said they would not go along with a budget proposal that included $10 in spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases. Positioning that far to the right is way too out there for most independent voters, who respond well to the suggestions of balanced approaches to deficit reduction.

While I don’t buy into Greenberg’s argument of a potential Democratic wave, if any kind of partisan wave is likely to develop -- barring some cataclysmic political, military, or economic development at home or abroad -- it sure seems more likely to break in favor of the Democrats, as he's suggesting, as a result of a backlash against Republicans going too far to the right. I don’t yet see signs that the Republicans’ obsession with their conservative base has reached a tipping point that will create a Democratic wave. But if I were a Republican leader, I’d at least consider the possibility.

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