First, before I say any of this, let me preface it with the usual caveats about how polls are often wrong, and this far out even more so. So, caveat lector, as Bob Somerby would say.
Having said that, let me also stipulate a piece of very common conventional wisdom these days: that Democrats are in for a drubbing in November. Now, there’s reason to suspect this may be the case; witness the election of Scott Brown to the seat held by Ted Kennedy and his brother John before him. Witness the Virginia and New Jersey Governors’ races prior to that. Witness any of a number of polls showing many Democrats in some tough re-election fights. It’s true, Democrats have a lot to lose, and there are certainly some signs out there that they may lose some – if not many – of them.
However, there’s a reason this type of analysis is called “conventional wisdom,” and that reason has to do with the fact that such perspectives are a) widely held and b) often based on pretty run-of-the-mill analysis. Often, in fact, it’s not even based upon any sort of rigorous analysis at all, but rather on assumptions about “how things work.” Anyone who lived through the shocking discoveries of Saddam Hussein’s massive stockpiles of WMDs, for example, knows how dangerous it can be to rely upon guesses based upon a perceived understanding (one’s own, or that of some outside “expert”) of “how things work.”
Part of the conventional wisdom that says Democrats are in for a rough time this fall stems from the fact that it’s simply counterintuitive to expect a party – any party – to amass a third (overall) “winning election” in a row. Democrats ran the table in 2006 as a result (largely) of the public’s frustration with the worst problems of the Bush years, and they won big again in 2008. Although there’s little beyond a vague grasp of the law of averages behind it, most pundits and prognosticators (especially the vapid TV variety) appear to believe that it simply defies common sense (another word for “conventional wisdom”) that Democrats would rack up a third winning election in a row.
That same logic was also being used to some extent in 2008, however, from off-the-cuff predictions of Democratic losses (or smaller-than-expected gains) to lengthy, pendulous pieces full of ominous-sounding but anecdotal “evidence,” proclaiming doom for specific Democratic candidates. All such guesses were incorrect (in the case of specific predictions; wildly off-the-mark in the case of wide-sweeping predictions). And there’s hardly more reason to suspect things to be different this fall based solely on probability. Are there some Democratic losses in the offing? Yes, there probably are. Blanche Lincoln is almost certainly doomed this fall, and there are a few other races in which the Democrat is behind — some by quite a substantial margin.
Yet there are also signs that the opposite is happening, too. All throughout the long, hot summer of discontent in ’09, angry teabaggers disrupted townhalls and a consensus grew among the chattering class that there was “energy” on the right but no longer on the left; that Democrats were “in trouble.” When Scott Brown scored his upset victory over the hapless Martha Coakley, that conventional wisdom solidified into a virtual narrative. Democrats were despondent, and headed for the rocks this fall, while the GOP, through sheer mule-headedness, party discipline and the resurgent teabaggers, were headed back into a much greater share of power.
But take a look at two separate polls, both from last week, which don’t seem to bear that narrative out. The first is a Research2000 poll for DailyKos, covering the Illinois Senate seat previously held by Barack Obama (and most recently by Roland Burris, of Blagojevich-fame). Senate seats are always important since there are only 100 of them and they wield outsize influence as a result, but this particular seat has been something of a plum for Republicans in much the same way that winning Ted Kennedy’s seat was. The symbolism of turning Obama’s old seat red, in the first election since he vacated it, is a tantalizing one indeed for the GOP faithful. And, until recently, Republican Mark Kirk had been either competitive with or in some cases held a commanding lead over Democrat Alexi Giannoulias. Yet in this most-recent poll, Giannoulias leads Kirk by 43-36. Yes, there’s months to go, and yes, there are 19% still undecided…but those numbers were just as big – or bigger – when previous polls showing Kirk ahead were done.
Similarly, another thorn in the GOP’s side recently has been the defection of former-GOP (and now Democratic) Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Specter was one of the Reagan Republicans, and had been for decades. He was always one of the more moderate, “gettable” Senators, occasionally crossing the aisle to work with Democrats on certain issues. That never endeared him to the hard-core GOP, but when Specter voted for President Obama’s stimulus package last year, he earned the everlasting enmity of Pennsylvania’s far-right, who vowed to defeat him in the upcoming GOP primary. Specter shrugged it off for a while, but when multiple polls showed him losing badly to Toomey among the sort of hard-core conservative base voters who show up for GOP primary contests, he made a pragmatic decision to switch parties. The GOP, I’m sure, thinks of it as an unprincipled or even craven decision – and I’m none too sure I’m suddenly a fan of Specter myself just because he made a calculated choice to put a D after his name instead of an R. But from Specter’s perspective, he’s a savvy enough politician to understand that he was simply going to lose, no question about it, in a contest among hard-core right-wing ideologues — even if he likely could have won the general election — which he could have (and still can). Ideologues have no room in their calculus for compromise or tough decisions, and a far-right (but untested) conservative firebrand like Toomey is always preferable to them to someone they perceive as a feckless RINO like Specter.
So Specter switched parties, thus making him “dead” to most of the GOP, who now consider him a traitor. And his opponent is the man who would have certainly defeated him in a hypothetical matchup in the GOP primary, Pat Toomey. Only now, Specter will be facing Toomey in the general election, where Democrats will be weighing in, as well as independents and swing voters. And lo and behold, here’s another poll (this time from Quinnipiac, saying Specter has pulled into the lead in the PA-Senate matchup, for the first time in months. Until this poll, Toomey had been leading – sometimes even dominating – Specter, lending superficial credence to the conservatives’ suggestions that perhaps Specter had burned too many bridges in PA and now nobody wanted him.
But in PA – as in IL (and, I contend, elsewhere) – most people are not political junkies, and they don’t follow the ins and outs of political intrigue and infighting. Especially not a year or more from election day, or even beyond about six months. Arlen Specter has had, and continues to have, one of the most-recognizable brand names in Pennsylvania politics, and he doesn’t lose that overnight just because he irritates hardcore conservative ideologues. That doesn’t mean that just because people know him, they’ve got a favorable impression of him, although there is often a certain “better the devil you know” effect in politics.
The truth of the matter is that it’s still too far out to say for certain what will happen in either Specter’s race or Giannoulias’ race…but the notion that Democrats are simply in for an across-the-board drubbing this fall is not borne out by these most recent polls, and will likely wind up as yet another example for the historians of poor political pundit-prognostication. Probably. 😉