All year, House Democrats have desperately needed two things to happen to help them pick up the 25 net seats they need to reinstall Rep. Nancy Pelosi as speaker. First, they’ve badly needed a game-changing event to shift the conversation from weaker-polling issues for Democrats, namely jobs and the economy, to stronger-polling issues, namely Medicare and entitlements. Second, amid the all-consuming glare of the presidential race, they’ve needed to find an effective way to shine a spotlight on the woefully unpopular congressional Republicans.
Sure enough, after a momentum-less start to the 2012 campaign, congressional Republicans gave Democrats a few early Christmas gifts in August. On the same day that news broke of a GOP freshman fraternity party at the Sea of Galilee, Rep. Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” forced virtually every Republican running in a remotely competitive district to stampede for cover and provided the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee press office a field day. But it was Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate that really had House Democrats buzzing that they had found the dual boost they needed, to both move the conversation to Medicare and get voters—particularly seniors—to pay attention to the House GOP’s plans.
The jury still hasn’t yet returned a full verdict, but my hunch is that the Ryan pick and the preceding GOP embarrassments provided House Democrats with the political equivalent of a “5-hour ENERGY” shot—maybe a 10-hour shot—but not a vitamin B12 shot or a magic elixir.
In an Aug. 16-22 (mostly pre-Ryan) survey of 1,000 likely voters taken for the GOP group Resurgent Republic (headed by veteran Republican strategist Ed Gillespie and pollster Whit Ayres), voters gave Democrats a slim lead, 44 percent to 40 percent, on the generic congressional ballot, barely outside the margin of error. Ironically, an Aug. 23-27 (post-Ryan) Democratic survey by Democracy Corps (an equally high-caliber group started by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and James Carville) for its Economy Project actually gave Republicans an insignificant lead of 47 percent to 46 percent.
There’s just no breeze blowing in either direction. If anything, the high-quality data suggest that the notion of durable Democratic momentum is an August mirage.
Democracy Corps touted the findings of a July 21-26 survey of 54 Republican-held “Battleground Districts,” and it’s easy to see why: In the 27 “Tier One” most-vulnerable GOP districts as rated by The Cook Political Report, Democratic challengers led the Republican candidates 50 percent to 44 percent (they trailed 41 percent to 50 percent in the 27 “Tier Two” next-most-vulnerable districts). Normally, this would and should set off lots of alarm bells for Republicans. But a close examination of the race-by-race landscape reveals that these findings paint something of an incomplete picture.
It’s entirely possible that 20 to 25 GOP incumbents could lose reelection on a stellar night for House Democrats, but that’s not enough to shift control of the House. In fact, that outcome would be entirely consistent with a scenario in which Democrats score only a high-single-digit or low-double-digit net gain, not the 25 seats they need. The Cook Political Report currently rates 21 GOP-held seats as either Toss-Ups or more vulnerable, but thanks to retirements and redistricting, 15 Democratic-held seats are Toss-Ups or worse, including four that we rate as Lean Republican and three that are Likely Republican.
Thanks to the geographically concentrated nature of President Obama’s support in safe Democratic seats and to effective GOP gerrymandering (look around Charlotte for a perfect example), Democrats would probably need a consistent lead in the high single digits or more on the generic ballot to have any chance at taking the House. Today, that’s not the case. For the first time since the 2004 cycle, neither party enjoys a strong wind at its back. Voters are almost universally frustrated when it comes to Congress. But their anger is almost evenly split down the middle, and undecideds don’t know whether to punish the tea party or Obama’s party.
If this were still 2008 and voters had already tuned out an unpopular Republican president, my hunch is that freshman high jinks, Akin’s bizarre biology lesson, and the Ryan Blueprint would have affected attitudes and down-ballot votes much more broadly. But two months out, the extremely close Obama/Romney contest is taking up almost all the bandwidth, and the partisan breakdown of the House doesn’t look likely to change dramatically.
David Wasserman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the September 5, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.