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Politics / ON THE TRAIL

When Assessing House, Parties Are in Parallel Universes

Who's right will hinge on poll accuracy, Medicare, and whether the GOP can expand the map.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

photo of Reid Wilson
October 3, 2012

Get them together in public and the top political consultants in both parties will argue about every race in the country. But privately, the two sides usually see the same fundamentals at work in any given contest, and, more often than not, they agree on the likely outcome.

That's what makes this year's battle for control of the House of Representatives so intriguing: Both sides are stocked with smart operatives buried in poll numbers -- and yet it's hard to remember a time when their conclusions have diverged so widely on so many races.

Republicans believe it is possible to gain seats, even after a wave in 2010 washed the party to its virtual high water-mark. Democrats still think they can reclaim the 25 seats they need to win the majority. In both cases, and in the individual races that will determine the makeup of the 113th Congress, one side thinks the other side is nuts.


Who's right? The answer lies in these three questions:

Whose Polls Are Most Accurate?

The conflicting views probably come down to the most fundamental assumption a political strategist can make: What will the electorate look like?

As pollsters build their models, they consider what percentage of the electorate will consist of white voters, or men, or people with college degrees. A sample with more nonwhite voters will skew toward the Democrats; a sample with an older electorate will lean toward the Republicans. Recent elections have demonstrated the extremes of the potential sample: In 2008, the population that elected President Obama was significantly more racially diverse than any before it. In 2010, those voters stayed home, and a much older, more conservative electorate gave Republicans their House majority.

This year, Republicans believe that Democratic pollsters are relying too heavily on the 2008 turnout models, that the samples showing Democrats doing well in key districts include more minority and younger voters than those who will actually turn out. Democrats think Republicans are too wedded to the 2010 models and are missing legions of new voters who will be motivated to come out to vote both for President Obama and Democrats down the ticket.

The slight differences in sample size can add up to dramatically alter a top-line result.

Republicans see Democratic Reps. Jim Matheson, Ed Perlmutter, Jerry McNerney, and Ben Chandler in jeopardy of losing their seats, and they believe that the GOP is in a strong position to pick up Arizona's 9th Congressional District and Illinois' 12th, both open seats that lean toward Democrats. Democrats disagree on every one of those contests. On the other hand, Democrats believe that Reps. Joe Heck, Allen West, and Mary Bono Mack are in serious danger of losing their jobs. Republicans think Democrats are wasting their money in all three districts.

If one side's polling is truly superior to the other's, we'll see the evidence in these eight races.

Who Wins The Medicare Debate?

Democrats and Republicans also diverge on the potency of Medicare as a campaign issue. Democrats saw an opening in 2011 when Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposed turning the entitlement program into a voucher system; they ran ads in an upstate New York special election criticizing Republicans for "ending Medicare as we know it." That message helped Rep. Kathy Hochul snag a Republican-leaning seat.

But the GOP fought back, and in a Nevada special election later that year Republican Mark Amodei ran his own advertisements featuring his mother. The ads said that Amodei would never cut Medicare and counterattacked over the health care law's changes to the Medicare program. Amodei won, and gave Republicans what they saw as a silver bullet against a potent Democratic message.

Democrats point to another special election, held earlier this year in southern Arizona, as evidence that the silver bullet is a blank. In that race, Republican Jesse Kelly followed Amodei's script to the letter. It didn't move numbers, and by the end of the race, Kelly had pivoted away from Medicare and was attacking Democrat Ron Barber on energy issues. Barber won.

Ryan's presence on the Republican presidential ticket has given the Medicare debate new saliency. In races across the country, Democrats are still spending their money on advertising blasting Republicans over Ryan's budget plan. Republicans are deflecting the criticism by following Amodei's playbook, in some cases going as far as inviting their parents on screen.

Whether Democrats really have found an issue that moves voters, especially seniors, away from Republicans, or whether Republicans have the right antidote, will decide a handful of swing races this year. Which side is right remains an open question.

Can Republicans Expand The Map?

After winning control of Congress in a landslide, a party's usual next step is to start playing defense. But Republicans aren't engaging in any sort of war of attrition; instead, they have targeted a handful of Democratic seats that they believe are vulnerable.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is spending in 15 Democratic-held seats so far this year. They range from Matheson's Republican-heavy Utah district, a perpetual target even though the Democrat has stubbornly survived, to Rep. Dave Loebsack's Iowa seat and several upstate New York districts.

Republicans were already certain to pick up Democratic-held open seats in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and they're the favorites in districts in North Carolina and Georgia that were dramatically redrawn in the decennial redistricting process. But by expanding beyond those districts and into territory held by Democrats such as Pennsylvania's Mark Critz and Massachusetts' John Tierney, Republicans are forcing Democrats to spend money there -- instead of in Republican-held seats that the party needs on its path back to a majority.

Republicans have already forced Democrats to spend big in some of those races. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has committed at least $285,000 to a Connecticut district being vacated by Rep. Chris Murphy, $243,000 to protect Critz in western Pennsylvania, and $768,000 to save retiring Rep. Jerry Costello's seat in Illinois. The House Majority PAC, the pro-Democratic outside group, is spending nearly $500,000 to protect Perlmutter, $196,000 for Matheson, and $211,000 for Critz. Added together, it's but a fraction of the total amount spent on Democrats' behalf, but it's money that could go elsewhere if the GOP hadn't made the conscious decision to play offense.

Republicans are still the heavy favorites to keep the House for the 113th Congress. But the difference between major losses and only minor bleeding will hinge on which side's polling is better, how voters decide the Medicare question, and whether Republicans can continue to play offense in what might otherwise have been a barren landscape. The fascinating dynamic is just how differently the two sides are answering those questions in their own minds.

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