A Tale of Two Perceptions

Yesterday, it was interesting to read two divergent takes on the 2014 midterm elections. One was by Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal and the other by James Carville in The Hill. First, Rove’s article. In that piece, he cited three sets of data indicating that this year looks like a good one for the GOP. The first set of data involves fundraising and shows that in competitive Senate races, Republicans generally outraised their Democratic counterparts in these battleground races. Some of them involved Democratic incumbents who, although they may have outraised their GOP challenger, did not do so by wide margins. Additionally, the cash on hand gap for these Republican challengers decreased in the Fourth Quarter of 2013.

Putting this fact into perspective, it needs to be noted that no state has yet to hold a primary. In fact, only four states have reached their filing deadlines- Illinois, Texas, Kentucky and West Virginia. Obviously, some of this money raised will be diverted to competitive GOP senatorial primaries in these and other states. In Texas and Kentucky alone, incumbent Republicans are facing somewhat serious party challenges. Others are likely to emerge, for example, in Alaska (Mead Treadwell vs. Dan Sullivan), Nebraska (Ben Sasse vs. Shane Osborne), and the race in Georgia to represent the GOP to succeed the retiring Saxby Chambliss. Still, the dollar figures raised as compared to their Democratic opponents whether they were incumbents or not is encouraging.

All that being said, this writer really does not put much stock in raw numbers when it comes to campaign finance. Instead, I like to look at the source of those dollars. If pure spending/fundraising was the main criteria of electoral success, Linda McMahon would be the Senator from Connecticut. If the dollars are raised in-state, that is generally a better indicator. Of course, outside money plays a role also but sometimes- unless the issue is hot in that race- it often makes little difference. Not speaking for everyone but as for me, often those advertisements fall on deaf ears.

The second piece of information he discusses is the Gallup poll showing Obama’s overall approval rating at 42%. However, in the seven key states that represent the best GOP chances for a seat pick up in the Senate, Obama’s approval rating averages a dismal 36%. Working under the assumption that the Democratic candidate will run about 5 points above Obama’s rating, one would expect Democratic Senatorial candidates to garner about 41-43% of the vote in these states. Personally, I think this is a rather low figure and some of the races will be closer than the suggested 57-43%. Additionally, there is always the possibility that Obama has hit his low point and by the time Election Day rolls around, he may be higher, thus increasing the Democrat’s chances in 2014.

Therefore, as an electoral campaign strategy, the third data point is perhaps the most important. This is the annual report by Congressional Quarterly on senatorial voting patterns. In terms of agreement with Obama’s policies and proposals, among the Democratic senate incumbents, the lowest percentage belongs to Mark Pryor of Arkansas at 90%. In fact, the average agreement rate is 97%. Coupled with Obama’s low approval ratings in these states, it makes sense that Mark Begich of Alaska has pushed back against Obama’s State of the Union promise to use Executive Orders to advance his agenda. It explains why Kay Hagan in North Carolina failed to share the stage with Obama at a recent presidential stop there. Highlighting their voting records- not their current rhetoric- is an issue GOP challengers should exploit to the fullest.

There is encouraging, but unlikely, news out of states like Oregon, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico- all states that appeared out of reach from Republicans six months ago. In Michigan, it bears repeating that Democrat Gary Peters had basically a 5-year headstart on Republican Terri Lynn Land, yet the most recent polls put Land up by as much as four points. With strong candidates in these other states, the GOP can expand the playing field and truly put the Democrats on the defensive.

As for Carville, he uses generic polling data to make the case that Democrats will perform better than most expect this year. For example, one poll puts the approval rating of Congress in general at something under 10% which is obviously far worse than Obama’s approval rating. But, Congress is Republicans AND Democrats while the presidency is just a Democrat. It is like comparing apples and oranges. Carville then trots out some poll which shows that just 17% of people would trust a Republican-controlled Congress. The last time I checked, 17% was still better than “something less than 10%.” If opposition to Obamacare is any indication (passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress), the Democratic Congress would fare the same. A reminder of what happens when Democrats control Congress- Obamacare- is a winning strategy.

He also states that close to 67% of people oppose the Republican Party. While this may be true in urban areas, if true overall it would defy logic and the laws of mathematics and we would have Democratic control of the House. Even if we take Carville at his own word when he claims that Republican incumbents as opposed to Democratic incumbents face a greater disadvantage with their constituents, he makes the quantum leap in logic and asserts this is a rejection of the GOP even in heavily Republican districts. While there may be a general disapproval of Congress, Carville neglects to mention three things. First, he fails to mention that incumbents win about 80% of the time which is good news for the House- the thrust of this assertion. Second, in many cases, although the incumbent Republican may lose, that loss will come in the primary, not general election to a Democrat. There are simply not enough key swing districts in play for Carville’s numbers to make any sense. Third, Carville also fails to mention that Democratic incumbents are also facing challengers within their party in the primaries. Given the mood of the country and their disapproval of Congress, it is not only incumbent Republicans who should be wary. Taken together, it becomes obvious that the Louisiana heat and humidity have baked Carville’s bald head if he is going to use this data to make the assertion that the Democratic brand and voter identification with that party will result in electoral success this year.

Of course, it all makes sense when one realizes some of the polling data he is relying on- Democracy Corps. This is basically a Democratic Party-controlled institution dedicated to Democratic propaganda. Just a cursory look at their website indicates that any “polling data” or “facts” emanating from it are suspect at best.

Finally, Carville notes Democratic success in the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2013. This was to be expected. As I have shown in the past, if the third party candidate had performed to the historical average of the Libertarian Party, Ken Cuccinelli would have been elected in a very close race. Given the amount of money thrown into that race by outside Democratic sources, McAuliffe should have trounced Cuccinelli (if money really makes a difference). Reagrdless, it is a useless exercise to read McAuliffe’s victory as a portent of things to come for the Democrats nationally. Likewise, also as expected, the special election in Florida’s 13th District is held out by Carville. Color me silly, but the last time I checked, GOP candidate David Jolly was ahead of the better known Democrat, Alex Sink. Of course, the only poll that counts is the one on election day. Even if Sink wins, the Democrats will tout the victory, but Sink will have a short turn-around period before she has to run again in November. In short, Sink will not have much of a record to run on in November and if she is your typical Democrat, what record she may have will likely align with Obama’s unpopularity.

The best that could be said about Carville is that he could spin a story line with the best of them. However, my advice would be to ignore that bald weird looking man with the Cajun accent behind the curtain.