Thursday, September 21, 2006

What to Expect Over the Next Seven Weeks

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s a good idea to try to anticipate the ups and downs of this election cycle’s stretch run, so when the inevitable stories about a Republican “surge” hit the newspapers, you won’t be taken completely by surprise.

First, this is the kind of cycle when long-shot challengers suddenly appear, even as late as mid-October. If the national environment doesn’t change, Republican seats previously taken for granted could show up as vulnerable in late polling, as the Democrats experienced with then-Rep. Dan Rostenkowski’s Illinois district in 1994.

But since polling across the country shows that Democratic voters already have rallied to Democratic candidates, some of these surprisingly close polls simply may reflect the Democratic generic vote in the district rather than a Democratic challenger’s strength.

Democrat Charlie Brown, for example, who is challenging Rep. John Doolittle in California’s 4th district, has a poll showing him running virtually even with the GOP incumbent. But while Doolittle has loads of personal problems, his district is heavily Republican.

More important, Brown, a career military man, has the warmth of a second-degree frostbite. And that’s before you get to the contradictory and confusing way he talks about issues and his personal philosophy. So once Doolittle starts to spend his substantial resources on beating up Brown, the challenger’s prospects are likely to dim.

I’m certainly not suggesting that all of the late-developing races will be mirages, only that it’s wise not to overreact to news of “surprises.” Take a deep breath, check them out and look for reasons not to take them at face value (especially if you want them to be true). If, after being as skeptical as you can be, you still think a “surprise” looks interesting, then you can start getting excited.

Second, beware of all national surges. And remember: Journalists always want a horse race, not a blowout.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that in pretty much every election cycle, there is talk, invariably sometime in October, that one party or the other is “surging.” In 1994, for example, the last time a truly significant partisan wave hit, there were reports in October of a Democratic surge.

Back then, Democrats expected to hold control of the House of Representatives until the Earth fell into the sun, so they waited throughout the summer and fall for the inevitable point at which Democratic candidates strengthened in the polls. That point never came, but it didn’t stop a flurry of media reports in October that a Democratic surge was under way.

An article in the Oct. 28, 1994, Los Angeles Times, for example, asserted that “there are signs of subtle shifts in public sentiment and political strategy that suggest Democratic Party loss[es] on Nov. 8 might not be as severe as many experts predicted.”

The reports of a Democratic rebound were so widespread that the lead in my own pre-election newsletter that year asserted that I could find no surge in my reporting. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been forced to address the “surge” hysteria.

The likeliest culprit for starting a premature, or totally incorrect, surge panic this year is a national poll that reports on a dramatic closing of the generic ballot or a spike in the president’s job ratings. That’s likely to lead the Republican National Committee and the two federal campaign committees to send out a flurry of buoyant e-mails.

Mind you, I’m not ruling out improved prospects for Republicans. Maybe the White House’s efforts to redefine the elections as a choice on national security will prove at least partially successful, or maybe an event or a news story will change the political discussion. But I’d be wary about buying talk of a “surge” until I saw multiple national polls showing a fundamental shift in opinion or until district-level and state-level polls in competitive contests show Republican candidates doing better.

I know this will be hard to believe, but some of the people who talk about politics or conduct polls want to grab as many headlines as they can, and they may create a surge frenzy, or jump on a surge bandwagon, merely to promote themselves and get quoted.

Third — and this doesn’t contradict my last warning — don’t be surprised if there is some normal “firming” of the GOP base in the next six weeks that helps GOP candidates in Republican-leaning districts. In fact, I’m expecting it.

I’ve been struck by the unusually early firming of the Democratic vote, which has resulted in some Democratic candidates for Congress exceeding their name identification in the ballot test by 10 points or even 20 points.

Early polls showed independent voters so disproportionately Democratic that it’s likely some of them, who usually vote Republican, will slide back into the GOP column. And some Republican and conservative voters remain undecided, as in the Tennessee Senate race I wrote about recently. Certainly some of those voters are likely to rally behind Republican candidates as Election Day nears and the prospects of dramatic Democratic gains seem more real.

No, I don’t really expect most in the national media or the blogs to heed these warnings. Overreaction is a way of life for many of them. But now is exactly the time to be cautious about rumors and news. It’s better to get it right than to get it first.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 18, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.