Monday, October 31, 2005

House Handicapping Is Getting Very Silly, Very Quickly

By Stuart Rothenberg

I have already written that the 2006 election cycle offers Democrats an excellent opportunity to make serious gains in the House, possibly even the 15 seats they need to win a House majority. A Democratic wave seems likely to develop.

That said, some of the early assertions being thrown around about how many competitive House races there will be this cycle are foolish, indicating a misunderstanding of the 2006 landscape and how it compares to what happened in 1994.

It may make great copy to write that 100 GOP seats could be in play, or that recent Republican troubles could double the number of contested House races from 40 to 80 seats. But those numbers are no more credible than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s hyperbolic assertion in an Oct. 21 press release that the party has "45 strong candidates for change."

Let’s take a serious look at where the fight for the House stands and where it might be headed.

Democrats have a number of strong candidates running in GOP open seats, including two each in Iowa’s 1st district and Colorado’s 7th, plus one in the Minnesota 6th. They also have good candidates in their own open seats - Maryland’s 3rd, Ohio’s 6th and Vermont’s at-large seat.

But recruiting strong hopefuls to seek a party’s own open seats isn’t news, and the Iowa and Colorado races are in tossup districts, in which both parties are expected to field strong candidates.

The test for the Democrats will be in open seats that lean Republican and in districts where Republican incumbents are seeking re-election - and in those districts, the Democrats’ achievements so far are mixed.

The DCCC can rightly boast about recruits such as Diane Farrell (Connecticut 4th), Lois Murphy (Pennsylvania 6th), Ron Klein (Florida 22nd), Patricia Madrid (New Mexico 1st), and former Reps. Nick Lampson (Texas 22nd) and Baron Hill (Indiana 9th). Each has demonstrated an ability to run a strong campaign, and each has significant personal accomplishments.

But some of those the DCCC is promoting as "strong candidates" have far fewer assets, and much more to prove, before they merit the strong candidate label.

For instance, I met businessman Tim Mahoney, who is challenging Rep. Mark Foley (R) in Florida’s 16th. He’s on the DCCC’s list, but if he’s a top-tier candidate, then I’m Thomas Jefferson. I found Mahoney to be an unpolished second- or third-tier House candidate who is not yet prepared for a U.S. House race. He may have some personal money to put into his race, and he may ultimately become a good candidate. Time will tell. But he isn’t one now.

Other candidates whom I have not yet interviewed don’t seem, on paper at least, to be top-tier recruits. John Pavich, a 29-year-old lawyer and former CIA employee who’s challenging Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), has never run for office before. The same goes for Tony Trupiano, a former radio talk show host and weight-loss advocate who is challenging Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.).

The DCCC’s list also includes Francine Busby (California 50th), who drew 37 percent in a House bid in 2004, and Paul Hodes (New Hampshire 2nd), who drew 38 percent last year. Their showings are hardly proof that they are inherently strong challengers.

Many of the DCCC’s allegedly strong recruits have also raised no cash. Larry Grant (Idaho 1st) showed $11,453 on hand through Sept. 30, while Tim Walz (Minnesota 1st) had $41,150 in the bank and Jack Jackson (Arizona 1st) had $44,244 on hand. Yes, it’s early, but these and other mediocre fundraisers have plenty to prove.

About half of the names on the DCCC’s list of 45 strong candidates are warm bodies who actually may be able to take advantage of an electoral wave. After all, the GOP tsunami of 1994 swept in such lesser lights as Steve Stockman (Texas), Jon Christensen (Neb.), Dan Frisa (N.Y.), Wes Cooley (Ore.) and Enid Greene Waldholtz (Utah), none of whom survived more than two terms before being washed away again. But these Democratic recruits will have to demonstrate that they can win a race on their own.

As for the suggestions of 80 or 100 districts being in play next year, you probably can cut those numbers almost in half.

In the Nov. 2, 1994, issue of my newsletter, the Rothenberg Political Report, I identified 81 Democratic and 34 Republican House seats at real risk. Last year, at the end of the cycle, I classified only 30 total seats in the same way. The differences between 1994 and 2004 were dramatic, and even with a wave, 2006 will look much more like last year than 1994. No more than 50 or maybe 60 seats are likely to be in play a year from now.

A dozen years ago, Democrats held 252 seats - 20 seats more than the Republicans now hold. That meant Democrats were representing a considerable number of conservative and Republican-leaning districts that were vulnerable to a Republican wave.

Of the 34 Democratic incumbents defeated in 1994, only five represented districts that gave former President Bill Clinton more than 45 percent of the vote in 1992. By contrast, only 12 GOP Representatives currently hold districts carried by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (Mass.).

Even more important, 16 of the 34 Democrats defeated in 1994 were freshmen, and they had never run in an unfavorable cycle. This time, only three of the 33 incumbent Republicans against whom the DCCC says that it has recruited “strong” challengers are freshmen, and just over half, 17, were elected in 1994 or earlier, meaning that they successfully withstood Democratic tides in 1996 and 1998.

Finally, of course, there are fewer competitive districts after the post-2000 Census redistricting than there were before it, making it much more difficult for challengers to defeat incumbents.

One month ago, I surveyed the House and found 37 districts worth watching — 26 held by Republicans and 11 held by Democrats. Retirements, additional recruiting and a developing national political environment should increase that total. But the talk of 80 to 100 seats is, at this point, embarrassingly wrong.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on oCtober 27, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Many Republicans Look Ready to Gamble on Immigration Reform

By Stuart Rothenberg

A fight on Capitol Hill over immigration reform now appears inevitable, even though it carries considerable risk for the GOP. Rank-and-file Republicans are up in arms over illegal immigration into the United States, and they are demanding legislative action.

Nothing illustrates the division within Republican ranks on the issue more clearly than the very different approaches being taken by Arizona’s two Republican Senators.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have introduced a bill that would allow illegal immigrants in this country to continue working in the United States, eventually earning permanent residency if they meet certain conditions.

McCain’s Senate colleague in the Grand Canyon State, Jon Kyl (R), not only hasn’t signed onto McCain’s bill, but he and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have introduced an alternative bill that would require illegal immigrants to leave the country before they apply to return as temporary workers.

McCain’s approach is much closer to the one initially preferred by President Bush, who proposed a guest worker program that would allow aliens in this country illegally to obtain green cards to work in the United States for an extended period.

But while many GOP allies in the business community applauded the White House’s proposal, and while "establishment" Republicans generally found favor with the approach, most conservatives reacted angrily, saying the idea rewarded illegal immigrants with "amnesty."

Whatever the Senate decides, House Republicans already have their collective minds made up. They clearly are more concerned with getting illegal aliens out of the country, and keeping them out, than with finding a way to allow aliens to work in the country.

Rather than producing a comprehensive bill, House Republicans seem to prefer dealing with the issue in two separate steps. The first bill would deal with border security and enforcement, while a subsequent measure takes up the guest worker issue. But you don’t have to speak with many House Republicans to understand that many of them wouldn’t care if they ever get to the second bill.

While analysts have been talking for months about the issue and its potential to shape next year’s campaigns, immigration already has become a thorny political issue, showing up in a handful of 2004 races, mostly GOP primaries.

Last cycle, Illinois Senate candidate Jim Oberweis ran a TV spot that warned "illegal aliens are coming here to take American workers’ jobs." In Arizona’s 8th district and Utah’s 3rd district, GOP primary challengers tried to use immigration to deny renomination to Reps. Jim Kolbe and Chris Cannon. And the anti-immigration Coalition for the Future American Worker ran TV spots against Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and two Democrats, then-Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.) and then-Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), for their immigration positions.

Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) saw his winning percentage plummet after being bludgeoned for backing Bush on guest workers.

Immigration already shows signs of being a big issue in next year’s elections. This year, state Sen. John Campbell (R), the favorite to win a special election to fill former Rep. Christopher Cox’s (R) open California House seat, has aired a TV spot in which he bragged that he "is working to stop illegal immigration."

Curbing illegal immigration is the primary issue for Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez in a multicandidate Republican primary in Idaho’s 1st district. "I’m not a hyphenated American," Vasquez said. "I speak Spanish, I eat enchiladas. I appreciate my culture, but I love my country."

But while the immigration issue has the potential to rally the party’s conservative base and provide the GOP with an issue that could alter the overall national debate, it could also create a civil war within the Republican Party.

McCain already has mocked the opposing Senate bill, referring to it as "report to deport," and plenty of Republicans, including those in the business community, oppose punitive legislation that doesn’t allow undocumented aliens to work in jobs that many Americans don’t see as appealing.

Some Republicans also openly worry that the party will be branded as "racist" and "anti-Hispanic" if Congress deals with the issue as most House Republicans prefer. They note the problems California Republicans have had with Hispanic voters ever since then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) took on illegal immigrants in his 1994 re-election campaign.

Not all party insiders agree with that fear, however. One GOP operative told me he doubts that is a huge problem as long as Republicans emphasize the "illegal" aspect.

Adding into the political equation on the issue is that the president’s standing in public opinion polls encourages House and Senate Republicans to fight him on immigration, regardless of what position he takes. As one consultant told me, "There are a significant number of Republicans looking to split with the president, as a way of helping them survive in ’06. That’s a piece of the puzzle, too."

Even with immigration reform’s potential downside, some party strategists believe immigration could emerge as an issue that Republicans can ride from now all of the way to next November. As one Republican strategist told me recently, "Better [immigration] than the other ‘I’ word" - Iraq.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 24, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Democratic Strategists, Take Note: It’s Time to Think Big

By Stuart Rothenberg

For the first time in a dozen years, the political environment looks right for generic party advertising. But tight finances and the difficulty in getting party committees to agree on a single message could dampen interest in a strategy that worked well in 1980 and 1982 but poorly ever since.

If that last paragraph seems vaguely familiar, you have an extraordinary memory. It led off a column that appeared in this space on July 15, 1993. Then, as now, I was convinced that a national advertising campaign and a national message would benefit the "out" party in the next midterm election.

Republicans didn’t take my advice (so what else is new?), but they were able to nationalize the 1994 elections by making them a referendum on then-President Bill Clinton and his agenda, riding a tsunami to control of Congress.

I generally dismiss early TV political ads, finding them wasteful and ineffective. Normally, only consultants, not their clients, benefit from early ads. But this isn’t a typical election cycle.

With President Bush’s poll numbers down, Congressional job approval in the tank, Republican ethics problems making headlines and conservatives less than enthusiastic about the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, Democrats need to do everything they can to create a "national election."

A Democratic nationwide television advertising campaign can help make every race a referendum on the president, the Republican Congress and the status quo. It’s worked before.

The most effective national party advertising campaign ran in 1980, when the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee pooled their resources to fund an advertising campaign that cost $8 million - an extraordinary amount of money two decades ago.

The spots began airing in late January 1980, more than nine months before the general election. In one ad, an actor who looked like Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) ran out of gas. The spot’s tag line was: "Vote Republican. For a Change."

That fall, Republicans picked up 34 House seats and 12 Senate seats, giving them control of the Senate for the first time in almost 40 years and yanking power away from a Democratic Party that had controlled the House, Senate and presidency for the past four years.

Two years later, with the country in recession, Democrats ran their own effective generic advertising effort - a TV ad campaign proclaiming, "It’s not fair. It’s Republican." The party picked up 26 House seats.

So far, House Democratic leaders apparently have been spending most of their time trying to create a party message for the cycle. They are concerned about offering a positive agenda to counter Republican complaints that Democrats do nothing but criticize and stand for nothing.

That’s not what I’m talking about. In fact, there is no reason for Democrats to rush out an agenda of their own this fall.

Many people assume that the "Contract with America" contributed in some way to the GOP’s election success in 1994, but it’s a conclusion disputed by some Republican operatives actively involved in the cycle. Notably, that agenda wasn’t unveiled until Sept. 27, just five weeks before the election.

In fact, the phrase "Contract with America" didn’t appear in this newspaper until an article in late July, and then it was presented simply as an initiative on which the House Republican Conference was working. Until that point, Republicans focused exclusively on the Democrats’ failings.

Democrats don’t need to offer a positive agenda until next year. For the near future, they can do just fine pointing to the Republicans’ problems.

But a couple of waves of early TV advertising - possibly using the "together, we can do better" tag that has tested so well in focus groups - could help position the Democrats as the party of change and reform.

Some Democrats not only agree with me, they believe that the ads will come.

"The issue isn’t whether we should run ads, but when," one well-placed Democrat told me recently. "How we get the dollars and what the ads are going to say will be decided later. But there is no disagreement [among Democratic decision-makers] about whether to do the ads."

Other Democrats, though, are more cautious about the inevitability of a generic Democratic advertising campaign.

As it was back in 1993, money is again an issue now that soft money is not available to the parties.

Some insiders flatly predict that the Democratic National Committee will lack the resources to fund an ad, and even Democrats who support national generic advertising admit that the party would have to raise money specially for such an advertising effort. I would counter that a successful advertising effort could create a flood of new money for the party’s candidates and committees if Democratic donors smell blood in the water.

Other Democrats wonder whether party insiders who would have a role in any decision on a national TV campaign - the chairs of the two campaign committees, the party’s House and Senate leaders and an endless list of consultants - could possibly agree on what to say and when to say it.

My 1993 column ended by suggesting that if Clinton remained weak, a Republican generic advertising campaign might "force Democrats to defend more seats" and "help turn a small wave into a tsunami." That’s how I feel now, except that the beneficiaries this cycle would be Democrats, not the GOP.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 17, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Is the House GOP’s Ace in the Hole Really a Deuce?

By Stuart Rothenberg

This week’s CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll numbers aren’t startling because they weren’t different from others we’ve seen recently. The president’s job ratings are bad. Congress’ job rating is low. A majority of Americans think the country is headed off on the wrong track.

But while National Republican Congressional Committee operatives have acknowledged the national mood is sour, they gamely argue that their incumbents are in much better shape than you might think.

"While generic polls have value, polls that gauge the likelihood of voters to vote to re-elect their own Member of Congress are far more meaningful," two NRCC communications staffers wrote in a mid-October memo.

The NRCC memo noted a September Pew Research Center poll that asked, "Would you like to see your representative in Congress re-elected in the next congressional election, or not?" found 57 percent saying they favored re-election. Only 25 percent opposed their representative’s re-election.

Well, I’m not convinced, especially after doing some digging through old poll numbers. I went back to similar polling in 1993 and 1994, before the Republican wave of 1994 swept Democrats out of the majority in the House and Senate, and found two interesting points.

First, the Pew results aren’t all that different from some poll results released a dozen years ago.

In June 1993 and January 1994, Yankelovich Partners asked a similarly worded question about voters’ own House Members in Time/CNN surveys: "In your view, does the U.S. representative from your area deserve to be reelected or not?"

Both surveys found 57 percent of respondents saying that their Representative should be re-elected. In fact, the results from the January poll were identical to the recent Pew poll - 57 percent said their Representative deserved to be re-elected, while 25 percent said they did not.

Gallup polls for CNN and USA Today from July 1993 to March 1994 asked a question that was worded much like the Yankelovich and recent Pew polls, and it produced similarly high results of support for incumbent re-election.

The Gallup surveys asked respondents whether their U.S. Representative "deserves to be reelected," and found 54 percent to 62 percent answering in the affirmative.

All of that sounded good for incumbents, didn’t it? But it wasn’t.

As we know, voters in 1994 tossed out 34 House Democrats seeking to return to office (and not a single Republican), even though the Gallup and Yankelovich numbers in the fall and winter showed a solid majority of Americans thought their Representatives should be re-elected.

That’s not great news for anyone citing last month’s Pew numbers in making their case that the situation isn’t all that bad for House Republicans right now.

But there is a second reason the Pew numbers should be viewed with caution. The wording of questions appears to be crucial in explaining the Pew, Gallup and Yankelovich numbers I just cited.

The ABC/Washington Post and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls of 1993 and 1994 asked respondents whether their Representative "deserved" to be re-elected or whether they were "inclined" to vote to re-elect their Representative in Congress.

But, unlike the polls that produced good numbers for incumbents, the ABC/Post and NBC/WSJ polls attached an additional clause that asked "or are you inclined to look around for someone else to vote for?" (ABC/Washington Post) and "or do you think it is time to give a new person a chance?" (NBC/WSJ).

When the question included an explicit alternative to re-electing the incumbent House Member, those being polled were much less likely to answer that their Representative should be sent back to Washington, D.C.

Specifically, the November 1993 ABC/Post poll found only 38 percent saying that their Representative should be re-elected, while 52 percent said they were inclined to look for someone else. In January 1994, only 32 percent said they’d vote to re-elect their Representative.

The NBC/WSJ poll results from July 1993 to May 1994 were similar, with 47 percent to 55 percent saying that it was time to give a new person a chance, and only 30 percent to 37 percent saying that their House Member deserved re-election.

Note that the Yankelovich, Gallup, ABC/Post and NBC/WSJ polls all were conducted in roughly the same period, between the summer of 1993 and the spring of 1994. Given that, the differences between the polls that offer a "new person" alternative and those that did not is dramatic.

Remember, the recent Pew survey wording was much, much closer to that of the Yankelovich and Gallup polling, which produced better numbers for incumbents and did not prove very predictive of the 1994 Republican wave.

The lesson, then, is clear. When it comes to the question of whether voters believe their own House Member deserves re-election, Republicans are in no better shape now than Democrats were at the same time during the 1993-1994 election cycle. A different "re-elect" wording would produce a result that shows greater vulnerability than does the Pew poll.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 20, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, October 14, 2005

In Modern Politics, It’s Open Season on Congressional Leaders

By Stuart Rothenberg

Once upon a time, there was a Congress. And that Congress was made up of leaders and followers. The most important among them were the majority leaders, their whips and, in the House of Representatives, the Speaker.

And the leaders were powerful men (yes, Virginia, they were always men in the old days) who marshalled their troops on the floor much the way generals led their soldiers into battle. And the leaders were safe in the knowledge that they were invulnerable at home, let alone on Capitol Hill.

Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Well, it is, at least these days.

Party leaders in the past have faced revolts in their caucuses or been defeated at the polls, but I doubt there has ever been a time when members of the Congressional leadership had as huge a bull’s-eye painted on their backs as they do now.

The recent indictments of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay make the Texas Republican only the latest in a long list of legislative leaders to be driven from their posts.

Over the past two decades, the list includes Texas Democrat Jim Wright, California Democrat Tony Coelho, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, Louisiana Republican Bob Livingston, Mississippi Republican Trent Lott and now DeLay.

Wright announced in the summer of 1989 that he would resign as Speaker and from Congress after the House ethics committee charged him with violating 69 rules, while Coelho resigned his post as Majority Whip (and his House seat) in May 1989 following multiple allegations of financial improprieties.

Gingrich left the Speakership after the 1998 elections following two disappointing elections for the GOP and extensive ethics problems of his own, while Livingston’s tenure as Speaker ended before it officially began after his personal life became an issue. Lott stepped down when he complimented Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in a way that offended people who were looking to be offended.

And if opponents can’t drive you out by embarrassing you or by bringing legal action, they can always go after you politically, as Republicans did when they used all of their resources (nationally, not just in the state) to unseat South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, who was serving as Senate Minority Leader when he was defeated for re-election last fall. Daschle’s defeat followed then-House Speaker Tom Foley’s (D-Wash.) by 10 years.

Being in the legislative leadership in either chamber now means that you are a high value target to the opposition. Take down the leader, and you can discredit his or her party, or at least create the sense that the opposition is in disarray.

Successful Republican redistricting efforts in Texas to eliminate Martin Frost’s district don’t quite fall into the same category as partisan efforts to take down Daschle, DeLay or Lott, but it’s relevant nonetheless.

Frost, a former two-term chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lost bids to move up into his party’s leadership and was only a member of his party’s rank and file when he went down to defeat. But he was one of the politically savvier Democrats in the House (and in Texas), and his smarts and effectiveness made him a Republican target.

DeLay’s indictment and resignation from the House Republican leadership isn’t the end of liberal and Democratic efforts to cut the head off of the GOP legislative operation. Now a new person has that target painted on his back.

Barely 24 hours after DeLay resigned his leadership post I received an e-mail "backgrounder" from the office of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the Rules Committee, with an ominous headline: "Getting to know the new Interim Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-MO)."

Among the items in the e-mail were "Blunt does favors for son-turned-tobacco-lobbyist," "Blunt has close ties to lobbyist under federal investigation," "Blunt secures ethics waiver after marrying tobacco lobbyist," and "Blunt uses lobbyists as de facto whips to pass corporate tax cut."

This wouldn’t be the first time, of course, that political opponents tried to make an issue out of a wife who also was a lobbyist. Some Republicans raised questions about Daschle’s lobbyist wife, Linda Daschle. The names and the parties change, but the indignation, innuendo and outrage somehow seem to be the same.

Blunt isn’t the only member of the current GOP legislative leadership who is a target. In the Senate, Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) faces a difficult re-election, and Democrats know that Santorum’s defeat would rattle his party, impress the media and get more attention than any other Senate victory.

And after Blunt and Santorum? It depends on who moves into the Republican leadership in the House and Senate next Congress. Whoever they are, they automatically are targets.

The same goes for Democratic leaders. DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) are particularly obvious targets - Reid because his role as party leader could open him up to criticism back home, and Emanuel because he is smart, effective and hails from Chicago (where cronyism and corruption are not unknown in political circles).

Having all the power and prestige that go with being a legislative powerhouse must be fun and rewarding. But it’s also increasingly dangerous. And that’s something for ambitious politicians in both parties to think about.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 11, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I Never Read ‘Informed Ballots.’ You Shouldn’t Either

By Stuart Rothenberg

Last week, The Hotline published an interesting collection of responses to the question, "Should media outlets, including The Hotline, run informed ballots of head-to-head match-ups?" "Informed ballots" are ballot tests asked after those being polled are read descriptions of candidates and/or their accomplishments and positions.The question arose after I e-mailed Hotline editor Chuck Todd and suggested that he stop reporting those data, even if campaigns supply the full wording of their survey questions.

I realize that people generally want more information rather than less, no matter how misleading and useless it is. But I rarely, if ever, look at an "informed ballot," no matter where it appears. When it is released, it’s used primarily to raise funds to try to jump-start a campaign.

First, let me be clear that I don’t dispute the value of message testing to campaigns, including well-constructed informational questions followed by a second or third ballot test. Certainly, it matters to campaigns whether voters prefer one policy position to another, or certain credentials to others. But campaigns rarely, if ever, release this information.

What I don’t find useful are allegedly unbiased paragraphs that describe two candidates and are followed by a ballot test that purports to give us answers about who will win. Usually, the results do little more than raise more questions.

They often have so much information in them that it’s impossible to know exactly what quality or qualities respondents are reacting to. The informed ballot is an invitation to what psychologists and marketing professionals call the "halo effect." People focus on one characteristic or quality and generalize about it.

I expressed my concern about the informed ballot after seeing a recent Lake Snell Perry Mermin/Decision Research poll memo for Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus, Ohio, some of which was published in The Hotline.

It included an informed ballot as proof that Coleman is "in prime position" to defeat Rep. Ted Strickland for the Ohio Democratic nomination for governor. Respondents were given profiles of both candidates and asked to choose which profile they preferred.

Each man was described by at least a dozen bits of information. The question about Coleman devoted 91 words to his description and positive attributes and accomplishments, compared to 26 words of criticism. Strickland, on the other hand, received only 70 words of positive comment and 29 words of criticism.

Twenty-one words in Strickland’s description were about his "strong values," "steelworker" father and active church life, comments that may not have excited those being polled. The Congressman was associated with only one policy or accomplishment, fighting hard "to protect American industry and jobs from foreign competition."

Coleman’s description included no family references or general qualities. Instead, aside from his race, he was described entirely by his performance as mayor. He "brought people together to get things done," "helped create jobs" and balanced budgets.

Couldn’t the difference in the descriptions account for the results of the informed ballot? Did voters focus on one characteristic in evaluating the two candidates? Is all the "negative" information really negative? For example, the phrase "big city mayor" is used as a negative attribute of Coleman, but couldn’t its use explain why Coleman "surges to a whopping 37-point lead" in the Cleveland media market after his description?

Even assuming that I put much confidence into a question based on a Democratic subsample of 260 primary voters - and remember that the 6.2 percent margin of error doesn’t apply to the margin between the two candidates but to every subsample percentage - I’d need to know more before I could conclude that Coleman is "well positioned" to be elected governor.

What is his standing in various media markets? How much money can he raise? Are there things in his background that were not included in the informational paragraphs that might prove to be a problem for him?

Although I have no evidence, I’m convinced that pollsters have a better handle than I do as to which words evoke what reactions. I suspect that they often, though not always, create these questions to get a specific answer, particularly when they want to woo a candidate into a race or release the data for fundraising.

But my concern goes further. It tests qualities and accomplishments on paper, while ignoring both the dynamic of a campaign and the personalities of the candidates.

Surveys can accurately record voters’ positions on issues, their views of the incumbent’s job performance and their desire for change. But voters cannot measure the appeal of candidates by reading a few sentences about them - yet that’s what most elections are about.

I continue to regard polls as crucial to campaigns and to my own assessments. But I’m increasingly worried about question order, sampling techniques and attempts to manipulate those of us who analyze and handicap campaigns. I’m generally more wary about polls these days, and I wish everyone else was, too.

All polls are not created equal, and all poll questions are not of equal value. The "informed ballot" result is so dependent on question wording and order, and so vulnerable to misuse, that I have no confidence in it. I’ll look elsewhere for clues about races.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 6, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Next Court Fight: Just What the Doctor Ordered for the GOP?

By Stuart Rothenberg

One Supreme Court justice down, one Supreme Court justice to go.

For Republicans, the next Supreme Court fight isn’t just another test of President Bush’s salesmanship or the party’s muscle in the Senate. It isn’t merely an opportunity for conservative interest groups to rally evangelicals, social conservatives and the business community.

And it isn’t only a rare opportunity to change the direction of one of the three branches of government, though that is hugely important to the president’s core supporters.

Instead, it’s an opportunity for Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to change the current national debate - away from ethics and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Social Security, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. Now, Republicans can sink their teeth into what is their own political version of a steak dinner: an ideological fight.

In one sense, it really doesn’t matter whom the president nominates for the court. A fight between Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans is inevitable. And it is a fight that Republicans should welcome, since it is likely to elevate cultural and law enforcement issues in importance and overshadow issues and problems that have kept Republicans on the defensive.

But shouldn’t the president want to avoid a slugfest during the next confirmation fight? After all, with poor job approval numbers, high gas prices and continuing violence in Iraq, is this really the time for Bush to pick a fight with Senate Democrats?

Of course it is. This is precisely the time for Bush to try to sucker Democrats into a bitter battle, even a filibuster.

And chances are, he won’t have to try too hard to incite Senate Democrats.

Half of those Democrats voted to confirm John Roberts as chief justice of the United States, a remarkable number given early speculation that he would get roughly a dozen Democratic votes. But there is little chance that the next nominee, who will fill retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s swing seat on the court, will draw that many Democrats, unless Bush nominates Lawrence Tribe or Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Trying to placate Democrats would be a huge mistake, since it would only anger the Republican base and would not measurably improve Bush’s relationship with Democrats. And after the second court vacancy is filled, Democrats will continue to hammer away on Iraq, the budget deficit and ethics, leaving Bush and Congressional Republicans no better off than before the court nominations.

Post-Hurricane Rita polling conducted by both Fox News and CNN/USA Today showed the president’s job approval at 45 percent - nothing to celebrate, but then again not the post-Katrina free fall that some expected.

Republicans continue to support Bush, and a Supreme Court fight is likely to divide primarily, but not entirely, along partisan lines. That’s not a bad thing for the president or his party, particularly since they lack a legislative agenda that keeps grass roots Republicans happy.

A judicial fight might well allow Republicans to paint other Democratic attacks primarily as partisan. Indeed, that’s what House Republicans immediately tried to do after Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle indicted DeLay last week.

And if the president’s nominee divides traditional Democratic constituencies, so much the better from the White House’s point of view.

Of course, it isn’t only the fight that counts, it’s the outcome. A flawed nominee with serious ethical or professional issues would damage the president (and his party) further. And drawing Democrats and their liberal interest group allies into a nasty fight won’t solve the GOP’s other problems.

A court battle won’t lead inevitably to a better situation in Iraq, or lower gas prices or resuscitate the president’s Social Security agenda. It won’t remove ethics clouds from DeLay, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio).

A fight wouldn’t cure all of the Republican Party’s ills, but at least it would give the president and Congressional Republicans something of a breather from those problems by drawing the media’s attention to an old-fashioned political brawl.

And given the kind of year the Republicans have had, a breather can only help them.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 3, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Democrats Need to Find More Than Just a Few Good House Races

By Stuart Rothenberg

With House Republicans resigned to the idea that they will spend this cycle defending their own turf rather than targeting takeover opportunities, much of the focus will be on Democratic efforts to knock off GOP incumbents and win open seats held by retiring Republicans.

Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to reach the magic number of 218, which would give them the opportunity to organize the House and install Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker. Can they do it?

At this point, most of the macropolitical indicators favor the Democrats. President Bush’s job ratings are poor, a majority of Americans think the country is headed off on the "wrong track," Congress’ job ratings are in the toilet and the Republican agenda is in shambles, wracked by internal divisions over spending, taxes and the deficit. Social Security reform, as everyone knows (yes, even Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House), is dead for this Congress.

GOP ethics problems, including the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), add to Republican election woes.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Pelosi couldn’t have painted a prettier picture for their party if they had supplied the paints and paint brushes themselves.

Some people also point to Newsweek’s early September "generic ballot," which showed 50 percent of respondents saying they would vote for a Democrat for Congress next year while only 38 percent preferred a Republican.

Aside from my personal view that Newsweek’s numbers often tilt toward the Democrats, I’ve found the generic ballot jumps around a lot and seems to be little more than a reflection of the current mood. I’ll wait until much later in the cycle before I give the generic ballot another glance.

If the overall environment seems to favor Democrats in House races, a race-by-race assessment of the party’s prospects is not nearly as upbeat. The party has a number of good opportunities, and it is poised to make gains. It’s just that those gains, while possibly considerable, are likely to leave the Democrats as the minority party after the midterms. But that could change.

Democrats have two good opportunities at GOP open seats - one in Iowa, where Rep. Jim Nussle is running for governor, and another in Colorado, where Rep. Bob Beauprez also is running for his state’s top job. The party also has a longer-shot opportunity in Minnesota with Rep. Mark Kennedy running for the Senate.

Democrats’ other open-seat opportunities are less encouraging given the partisan make-up of the districts and/or the quality of the party’s likely candidates.

Of course, additional Republican retirements are possible in Democratic-leaning and tossup districts that would give Democrats good opportunities. But unless and until those occur, I can’t figure them into my calculations.

So the DCCC is once again faced with the uncomfortable reality that it needs to defeat more than a few GOP incumbents if it is going to have a truly terrific year. And defeating incumbents has been the rare exception, not the rule, in recent election cycles.

There currently are just more than a dozen districts where Democratic challengers have a real chance of knocking off a Republican incumbent. Four rematches top the list: two in Connecticut, where Rep. Christopher Shays faces the same woman he defeated last time out and Rep. Rob Simmons faces his 2002 opponent; and one each in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Jim Gerlach faces Lois Murphy again, and Indiana, where former Rep. Baron Hill seeks to turn the tables on Rep. Mike Sodrel.

A sprinkling of other races in states such as Florida, North Carolina and possibly New York also are worth watching, but Democratic buzz in past years about defeating Reps. Clay Shaw (Fla.), Charles Taylor (N.C.) and Robin Hayes (N.C.) would make even the most gullible observer skeptical.

But even if Democrats won all these races (and even if they hold all of their own seats, including competitive districts in Georgia and Ohio), they’d still be far short of a majority.

While Democrats have made a great effort to "widen the playing field" by recruiting candidates against Republican incumbents who haven’t had strong opponents recently - including Pennsylvania’s Melissa Hart and Tim Murphy, New York’s Vito Fossella, Sue Kelly and John Sweeney, California’s Richard Pombo, Montana’s Denny Rehberg and Connecticut’s Nancy Johnson - those challenges range from difficult to near impossible.

Other Republican targets, such as Reps. Shaw, Taylor, Heather Wilson (N.M.) and John Hostettler (Ind.) have turned back supposedly strong challengers in other difficult election environments.

So the DCCC’s chances of making major House gains depends on landing more strong Democratic recruits and future GOP retirements. It also depends on the public’s continuing disappointment in the president and dissatisfaction with the course of the country. A Democratic "wave" based on alleged Republican ethics lapses is possible.

For now, Democrats can count on gains in the low to middle single digits — probably from four to eight seats. That would be a good step toward possibly taking control in 2008, but it would keep the House in Republican hands for Bush’s final two years.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 29, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.