With two weeks to go in the 2010 mid-term elections there are a number of good reasons to believe — contrary to most conventional wisdom — that Democrats will still control the House once the smoke clears from the electoral battlefield.
For the last several years Nate Silver, of fivethirtyeight.com, now owned by the New York Times, has become the gold standard for projecting electoral outcomes. For some time, Silver has projected that Democrats would lose control of the House and maintain control of the Senate. Though he quotes an 82% odds that Democrats will continue to control the Senate, he currently gives daunting 73% odds of Republican takeover in the House. He says that the consensus forecast has converged on the loss of 50 Democratic House seats, which would give Republicans enough seats to control the gavel. Not so good, right?
But that’s not the end of the story. Silver qualifies his projections with a major caveat. Saturday, he wrote:
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However, there is considerable uncertainty in the forecast because of the unusually large number of House seats now in play. A gain of as large as 70-80 seats is not completely out of the question if everything broke right for Republicans. Conversely, if Democrats managed to see a material rebound in their national standing over the final two weeks of the campaign, they could lose as few as 20-30 seats, as relatively few individual districts are certain pickups for Republicans….. In many of the in-play seats the Republican margins that have been used to project a big Republican win are very narrow. Even a subtle shift in the overall political atmosphere over the next two weeks could cause a major shift in outcome.
Silver himself predicts that if things continue on the current trajectory, Democrats will end with 207.7 seats — about ten seats shy of a majority.
But there are more than enough seats on bubble to make up the difference. Among the most important seats held by Democratic incumbents that could go either way are: Salazar, CO-3; Grayson FL-24; Titus NV-3; Herseth-Sandlin SD-AL; Pomeroy, ND-AL; Kagen WI-8; Kissell, NC-8; Davis, TN-4; Acuri, NY-24; Hall, NY-19; Foster, IL-14; Schauer, MI-7; Marshall, GA-8; Mitchel, AZ-5; McNerney CA-11; Owens NY-23. And there are more.
There are a number of reasons to believe that — contrary to the “consensus” view — Democrats will in fact protect their House majority:
1). The Pew Research Center released a study last week showing that most of the major polls being used this year poll only voters with landlines — not cell phones. It notes that the increasing reliance of many Americans — particularly young people — on cell phones as their only telephone introduces an increasing pro-Republican bias into many polls.
In reporting on the Pew Poll, Mark Blumenthal of Huffington Post’s Pollster.com wrote:
Pollsters have been reluctant to sample and call Americans on their cell phones, partly because it costs more and partly because federal law requires hand dialing any call placed to a cell phone, which makes such calls less efficient and puts cell phone polling off limits to automated survey methodologies.
For the last four years, the Pew Research Center has conducted public opinion surveys involving separate, parallel samples of both landline and mobile phones. Their design allows for a comparison between combined samples of landline and cell interviews and samples based only on landline calls.
Before the 2008 election, they found that calling only landline phones introduced a “small but real” bias in favor of John McCain, an average bias of 2.3 percentage points on the margin on nine national surveys conducted between June and October of that year.
This year, according to today’s report, the Pew Center finds that sampling only landline phones creates an even bigger bias — “differences of four to six points on the margin” – in favor of the Republicans.
2). For many weeks Republicans and their allies have enjoyed a major advantage over Democrats in overall communication volume, due mainly to the unlimited corporate spending allowed by the Citizens United Case. But over the next two weeks there will be increasing parity of the levels of communication swing voters will hear from the two sides. This will be true both because when you have less money you spend it when it matters most — at the end; and because the value of marginal increases in persuasion communication diminishes as the volume goes up.
Republicans and their allies have a big advantage if voters hear their messages ten times to the Democrats’ two. That advantage diminishes enormously if voters hear Republican messages 30 times and Democrats 25.
In other words, once Democratic levels of communication reach a critical level, Republicans will no longer have an effective advantage even if they keep dumping in more and more money.
3). The natural tendency to throw incumbents out in the face of wrong-track environment is tempered by potential risk of unknown — especially in the face of extremist alternatives. It’s one thing to get angry at a lousy economy and decide the time has come to throw the incumbents out. But after taking a close look at the alternative in the next two weeks, some fraction of voters will decide that the risk they represent is just too great.
The bad economy definitely inspires anger among voters, but a bad economy also engenders an increased level of caution. That is true not only in individual races where specific Republican candidates will receive harsh scrutiny, but in the general political dialogue as the extremist views of the 129 Tea Party candidates come more sharply into focus.
Candidates who want to phase out Social Security and Medicare, replace the progressive income tax with a flat tax or national sales tax and abolish the Department of Education do not represent mainstream alternatives to Democratic incumbents. They are risky alternatives.
4). Over the next two weeks, expect the White House and Democratic surrogates to bear down on Republican proposals to privatize Social Security and phase out Medicare, and their support for outsourcing jobs overseas. Polling shows these two issues are enormously powerful symbols for the fundamental fact that Democrats are on the side of everyday people and Republicans are on the side of Wall Street. They move votes. And the Social Security issue is especially important for moving senior citizens who have disaffected from Democrats back into the Democratic fold.
5). Democrats have begun to see success in their efforts to use political jujitsu in turning around the advantage of massive corporate spending for Republicans into a political liability. The charges about the use of foreign money recruited by the US Chamber of Commerce — including money from firms that benefit from outsourcing American jobs — have begun to stick.
Polling throughout the fall has shown that that the issue of corporate spending on elections has substantial political power. A SurveyUSA poll taken at the end of August in 18 battleground states showed that seventy-seven percent of voters overall, including 70% of Republicans and 73% of Independents viewed corporate election spending as an attempt to bribe politicians rather than an expression of free speech.
A later study by Greenberg and Associates showed similar results and concluded that pushing back on corporate influence is key to establishing trust and credibility with voters on issues like the economy and jobs.
6). There are increasing odds that Democrats will take five or perhaps six Republican seats (DE-AL, IL-10, FL-25, LA-2, HI-1, and perhaps CA-3). That would require the Republicans to take 43 or 44 additional Democratic seats to win control of the House. Additional surprises may be in the offing in the race for Dave Reichert’s seat in Washington’s 8th CD, and even Michele Bachmann’s seat in Minnesota 6.
7). The “enthusiasm gap” has begun to close. On Friday, Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University reported on data showing that in Iowa almost 120,000 ballots have already been cast and registered Democrats are returning their ballots at a substantially greater rate than Republicans (so far a 5 to 3 ratio) in every Iowa county.
A major survey conducted by The Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that 80% of black Democrats are as interested or more interested in the mid-terms than they were in the 2008 presidential election when their enthusiasm helped propel Barack Obama to the Presidency. According to a recent Gallup poll, President Obama has an 87 percent favorability among African Americans, and appeals to defend his Presidency by voting in the mid-terms are meeting a receptive audience. The First Lady and the President have hit the airwaves of black radio and TV. The DNC recently increased its commitment to advertising aimed at black voters and launched a radio spot by civil rights leader Joseph Lowery that links Dr. Martin Luther King’s struggle with this fall’s elections. “In 2008 we changed the guard,” he says, “This year we must guard the change.”
The MTV/BET slogan for this fall is “Do it Again in 2010.”
Latino turnout will also likely exceed the expectation of most pundits and pollsters. Their level of engagement has been raised by the anti-Latino Arizona “papers please” law and proposals by Republicans to repeal the 14th Amendment. In addition many immigrant rights and Latino organizations have committed substantial resources to major voter mobilization efforts over the next two weeks. The effects will be particularly pronounced in the many swing districts located in Colorado, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, New York and Florida. But Latino voter turnout could also effect races in less traditional areas like Virginia and North Carolina.
And as the choices facing the country between a House led by John Boehner and Paul Ryan, and one led by Nancy Pelosi become clear, Progressives who might have been disappointed in the outcome of some battles during the last 18 months have begun to rally. MoveOn.org is conducting a major program of voter mobilization and advertising aimed especially at the Progressive base, and a wide array of unions and other progressive organizations have begun major campaigns aimed both at the memberships and the voters at large.
8). Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operations conducted by Democrats will have much greater marginal value than those conducted by Republicans. They could make all the difference in the many districts teetering on the brink.
Republicans are much more prone to rely on paid telephone contacts and mail. Democrats rely first and foremost on door-to-door contact. Studies of GOTV operations have shown that one knock on the door within 72 hours of the election can increase turnout by 12.5% — a second by almost as much. All other things being equal, a live phone contact increases turnout by only 2.5% to 3%.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s major commitment of resources to robust door-to-door based GOTV operations will change the outcome in a large number of districts. That effort will be reinforced by the unprecedented work of Organize for America (OFA) — the Obama political organization.
And, since Republicans go into the closing weeks of the election season at a higher level of mobilization, the dollars put into GOTV contact will have a proportionately greater impact on Democratic levels of mobilization and turnout. Democrats will find it easier to change outcomes by harvesting low-hanging fruit among their infrequent voters than Republicans, since pollsters have already assumed many of these voters will participate in the election.
9). The President is out on the political stump – and that will change the national political atmosphere. It’s hard to tell just yet how big his influence will be, but it won’t take much change in the atmosphere to tip a large number of races into the Democratic column.
President Obama’s appeals will work both to mobilize “Obama” voters from 2008 and to persuade swing voters who need to be reminded that their families — and America — will be more likely to succeed if we once again embrace the belief that the best of America is ahead of us.
This year has been a season of unhappiness, disappointment and anger. That anger is certainly justified by the greed and recklessness that led Wall Street, the insurance companies, big oil and the nation’s wealthy few to take actions that jeopardized the future of everyday Americans.
Republicans have tried to redirect that anger toward “government” in general and Democrats in particular. The President will no doubt do a great deal to keep the focus on the fact that the policies of the Republicans and their Wall Street friends ran the economy into the ditch, and now they want us to give them back the keys. But he will also point the way forward by appealing to hope not fear, and to the premise that we’re all in this together, not all in this alone. He will work to revive the “yes we can” spirit that infused the campaign in 2008 and is so essential to America’s success in the future. In the end that kind of leadership — together with great execution at every level of our campaigns — may very well assure that when the battle is done, Democrats still hold onto the big gavel that will be used to call the house to order in January of next year.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: “Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win,” available on amazon.com.