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Triage Time For Democrats

In a perverse way, the job has gotten simpler for Democrats. Rather than having to try to do two very different things, they can focus on just one.

Efforts to persuade independents, that pivotal bloc of as many as 40 percent of all voters who helped Democrats rack up big wins in 2006 and 2008, have been to little avail. Nationally and in state and district level polling, the swing voters swung, and are now giving Republicans big leads. Attempts to swing them back over are ringing up "no sale."


Plan B for Democrats is to focus on their own party members, trying to jumpstart their interest in this election and get them back into the game.

Since ideologues and partisans are pretty much diametrically opposite of independents, tackling both jobs -- stimulating the base while reaching out to independent voters in a tough environment -- is awfully hard.

The red-meat messaging that exhilarates partisans often offends independents; the carefully nuanced messaging that resonates well with independents is seen as waffling by partisans.


Focusing primarily on the base is simpler. It's not a winning strategy; indeed, some would call it defeatist. Instead, it is one they hope will keep losses down to "really bad" but maybe below the "catastrophic level." Maybe.

With three weeks to go before Election Day, this year is shaping up to be something of a repeat of the 52-seat House and eight-Senate-seat loss rout of Democrats in 1994.

Sure, the circumstances and dynamics are different from 1994, but the outcome seems to be shaping up to be along the same lines.

Democrats are trying to keep their losses below that level, but it's a real challenge. As one Republican pollster put it privately, the swing among independent voters is giving the GOP the win, but it's the intensity and the turnout differential that is giving the GOP the landslide that seems to be forming.


Starting a month out, most national media organization polling has converted over to likely voter models for their midterm election polling, revealing more than in earlier polls of registered voters just how bad the terrain is for Democrats.

Keeping in mind that Democrats now hold 59 percent of all House seats, the Republicans lead among likely voters in the CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll is 52-45 percent; CBS News has it at 45-37 percent while the ABC News/Washington Post poll has it at 49-43 percent.

The CNN poll of 504 likely voters was conducted October 5-7 and has a 5-point error margin. The CBS poll of 1,129 adults was conducted October 1-5 has a 3-point error margin, with a higher error margin for likely voters. The ABC/Washington Post poll of 669 likely voters was conducted September 30-October 3 and has a 4-point error margin.

If those margins hold in the eventual popular vote total, it would translate into considerably more than the 218 seats Republicans need for the barest majority. Keep in mind that historically, national polls tend to underestimate the Republican vote on the generic congressional ballot test by about 4 points.

Starting last week, the Gallup Organization began releasing weekly their updated likely voter models. Based on two separate polls, each week is released with two sets of numbers, one based on a relatively higher turnout midterm election, the other on a somewhat lower turnout midterm. The higher turnout version has the GOP up 53-41 percent, while under a lower turnout scenario, the Republican edge is a whopping 56-39 percent. Democratic pollsters and their sympathizers have taken plenty of pot shots at the Gallup likely voter models since their first version was released a week ago, but it should be remembered that Gallup has been doing likely voter modeling in national elections since 1950 -- longer than anyone else -- and their seven-question screen is time-tested. Even if you take the narrower of the two sets of Gallup likely voter models and cut it in half, you would still have a GOP takeover of the House. Rather than shoot the messenger, folks should take the Gallup likely voter models fairly seriously.

At this point, Democratic campaign officials are faced with performing the painful triage process that their GOP counterparts had to engage in two and four years ago -- cutting their losses on incumbents who look unlikely to be saved and shifting resources to those whose campaigns seem salvageable.

It's never pretty, but to avoid doing so means spreading resources too thinly to have an impact. But with some incumbents who were previously thought to be safe suddenly finding themselves with narrow and precarious leads, it's a matter of ascertaining who can be saved with just money rather than those who would need an entire infrastructure and operation to be set up -- it's certainly too late for that.

For some Democratic incumbents who never anticipated a tough race -- indeed, some who never anticipated ever having a difficult race -- the next few weeks will be a nightmare. Some will survive it, others won't. That's what happens in wave elections. Just ask Republicans who recently had two in a row.

This article appears in the October 16, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.

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