Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Obama’s Appeal Depends on Your Definition of Change

By Stuart Rothenberg

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) continues to promise change and stress his ability to unite Americans. It’s a feel-good campaign built on soaring rhetoric and good intentions.

Pardon me if all of the fawning from the national media, and the endorsements from Caroline Kennedy and Garrison Keillor, leave me less than convinced that he can bridge the deep divide that separates Americans.

Withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq won’t bring Americans together. Nor will raising taxes on the affluent or enhancing the power of organized labor to recruit more members. Even a stem-cell research bill won’t bring Americans together, though a clear majority surely supports it.

In politics, the devil is always in the details, and except in rare cases, Obama has either avoided them or, more importantly, failed to note the obvious contradictions in his message and his record.

Yes, Obama is a wonderful speaker, and his calls for change obviously resonate with many Americans. With seven out of 10 Americans agreeing that the country is headed off on the wrong track, it isn’t surprising that every candidate has talked change. No one has promised a third Bush term.

The question, of course, is what kind of change? Does Obama want to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans? Will he push issues and alternatives only with a national consensus? Or is “change” simply a value-neutral word for liberalism?

In the spring of 2005, 14 Senators tried to make Washington run more smoothly by signing an agreement for the 109th Congress that had the effect of killing Democratic plans to filibuster President Bush’s appointees to the appellate bench and eliminating a GOP strategy that would disallow filibusters of judicial appointments.

Barack Obama, who talks about changing the tone in Washington, didn’t join that “Gang of 14.”

Part of the problem with Obama’s message — and part of the reason it has so far been successful in his White House bid — is that different people read different things into his message of hope and change.

During an interview on a Washington, D.C., radio station the morning of the Potomac primary, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) talked about why he is drawn to Obama’s message of change. One didn’t need to read very hard between the lines to see that Kennedy thinks “change” means a dramatically more liberal agenda.

There is, of course, nothing surprising or wrong with this. You would expect Kennedy to support a candidate with whom he agrees.

But other voters, including some Republicans and many independents, seem to be attracted to Obama because they see him as someone who will improve the tone in Washington, bring Americans together and “get things done.”

Again, those are understandable goals. The only problem is that Kennedy’s view of Obama and the other one are all but impossible to reconcile.

If Obama satisfies Kennedy and the Democratic Party’s most liberal constituencies, it’s unlikely that he is going to bring the country together. And if Obama does truly take steps to find a middle ground between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, he certainly will disappoint his party’s base.

The reality is that half of the country leans Democratic and half leans Republican. Yes, there are some issues on which many Americans agree, but if Obama limits himself to those, he’ll have a thin agenda.

Instead, Obama is likely to strike out in a different direction from Bush. And if he thinks his communication skills alone will bring along the whole country (as he seems to), he is deluding himself. America is divided because Americans have very different views.

Obama was rated the most liberal Member of the U.S. Senate in 2007, up from the 10th most liberal Member in 2006 and the 16th most liberal in 2005. That suggests that he will follow a rather predictably liberal agenda if he is elected president later this year.

Even more telling, possibly, was a recent interview Obama gave to television anchor Leon Harris and journalist John Harris. In it, Obama tried to have things both ways.

When he was asked by Leon Harris how he reconciles his support for the D.C. gun ban, which was declared unconstitutional by a federal court last year and which bars all handguns not registered before 1976, with his statement that he has “no intention of taking away folks’ guns,” Obama launched into a confusing explanation of “conflicting traditions in this country.”

He ended his monologue by saying, “We can have a reasonable, thoughtful gun control measure that I think respects the Second Amendment and people’s traditions.” But the D.C. gun ban is based on the premise that the Second Amendment doesn’t give individuals the right to own a gun.

Maybe if Obama wraps up the Democratic nomination in the next few weeks, he’ll give all of us a better idea of what he’d really like to do as president. We can only hope so. Another eight months of soaring but empty rhetoric about bringing people together and bringing about change will leave most of America brain-dead.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 25, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, February 22, 2008

New Print Edition: 2008 Senate Outlook

The February 22, 2008 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. The print edition comes out every two weeks and the content is not available online. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here is a brief sample of what's in this edition...

Senate Overview – The Lay of the Land

Democrats will be on the offense throughout the cycle in Senate races, with Louisiana their lone incumbent problem. Three GOP opens look at great risk – Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado – while a couple of incumbents appear particularly vulnerable, in New Hampshire and Minnesota. A number of other Republican seats are at risk, and even solidly Republican Alaska could turn into a major GOP problem.

Democrats are certain to gain Senate seats in November – but it’s not clear how many. Right now, 3-5 seems like the most likely guess. That could well change as the cycle develops.

For the entire 10-page issue, including state-by-state analysis as well as recent polling on each race, you must subscribe to the print edition of the Report.

2008 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings.

Likely Takeover (1 R, 0 D)
  • VA Open (Warner, R)
Lean Takeover (1 R, 0 D)
  • NM Open (Domenici, R)
Toss-Up (3 R, 1 D)
  • CO Open (Allard, R)
  • Coleman (R-MN)
  • Landrieu (D-LA)
  • Sununu (R-NH)
Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party (2 R, 0 D)
  • Smith (R-OR)
  • Stevens (R-AK)
Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party (3 R, 0 D)
  • Collins (R-ME)
  • Dole (R-NC)
  • McConnell (R-KY)
Currently Safe (13 R, 11 D)
  • ID Open (Craig, R)
  • NE Open (Hagel, R)
  • Alexander (R-TN)
  • Barrasso (R-WY)
  • Chambliss (R-GA)
  • Cochran (R-MS)
  • Cornyn (R-TX)
  • Enzi (R-WY)
  • Graham (R-SC)
  • Inhofe (R-OK)
  • Roberts (R-KS)
  • Sessions (R-AL)
  • Wicker (R-MS)
  • Baucus (D-MT)
  • Biden (D-DE)
  • Durbin (D-IL)
  • Harkin (D-IA)
  • Johnson (D-SD)
  • Kerry (D-MA)
  • Lautenberg (D-NJ)
  • Levin (D-MI)
  • Pryor (D-AR)
  • Reed (D-RI)
  • Rockefeller (D-WV)

Illinois 11: GOP Nominee Baldermann Ending Bid

New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann (R) is expected to end his congressional bid, according to GOP sources. The open seat, being vacated by Cong. Jerry Weller (R), was already a headache for Republicans, but this development is likely to make it even more difficult. Democrats have a strong nominee in State Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson (D).

Because the primary is over, the Republican Party chairmen from each county together will choose the replacement nominee. The vote will be weighted based on prior election results, giving Will County a huge influence on the decision.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Should Democrats’ Superdelegates Not Be So Super?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The unfortunate headline roared “Democrats Fear Superdelegates Could Overrule Voters.”

CNN isn’t the only media outlet to run with the storyline. Many others in the media, and more than a few Democrats, also have raised the specter of superdelegates imposing their will on the party and selecting a nominee who didn’t win the most pledged delegates in primaries and caucuses.

Democratic insider (and Roll Call contributing writer) Donna Brazile says she’ll resign from the Democratic National Committee, and even quit the party, if superdelegates determine her party’s nominee. Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum warns of a “backroom deal.”

Liberal blogger Chris Bowers promises, “I will resign as local precinct captain, resign my seat on the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee, immediately cease all fundraising for all Democrats, refuse to endorse the Democratic ‘nominee’ for any office, and otherwise disengage from the Democratic Party.”

“The best function of superdelegates would be to legitimize a candidate who already had won the majority of Democratic delegates,” said an editorial in the Feb. 14 Los Angeles Times.

Both Democrats and the media might stop huffing and puffing and pause for a moment to think about superdelegates, the “democratic” way of selecting nominees and the importance of playing by the existing rules.

First, superdelegates aren’t anonymous, invisible political insiders whose only interests are their own. More than a third of them (286 of 796) are Democratic governors or Members of the House and Senate, officeholders who have received the overwhelming support of Democratic voters in their races for office. Another 23 are former party leaders in and out of Congress.

The single largest bloc of superdelegates (411) is members of the DNC, veteran political players who have worked long and hard for their party and have demonstrated their commitment to it.

The image of these superdelegates as 19th-century party hacks who are making decisions in smoke-filled rooms to enrich themselves or to protect their power is sheer nonsense and the sort of stereotyping that rank-and-file Democrats would, under other circumstances, find offensive.

These Democrats aren’t outside the party. They are the party.

Second, superdelegates are not extra-legal participants in the nominating process. Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns knew the rules of the race from the beginning, and superdelegates were part of them. (This is also why the convention cannot seat “delegates” won in the Florida and Michigan primaries, a move that would benefit New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, since the DNC ruled that delegates were not at stake in both primaries and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign made important tactical decisions on that assumption.)

Third, and probably most important, the fundamental argument that pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses meet some sort of ideal “democratic” standard is seriously flawed.

Texas gets 193 pledged delegates at this year’s Democratic National Convention, or 5.93 percent of the 3,253 total pledged delegates. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas’ estimated population for 2007 was 23,904,380, or 7.93 percent of the population of the 2007 estimated population of the entire United States (301,621,157).

In other words, Texas is significantly underrepresented at the Democratic convention in Denver. Other states are underrepresented and overrepresented, depending on whether they benefit from the party’s allocation formula, which gives added weight to each state’s vote for the Democratic presidential nominee in the past three elections. This, of course, is both an understandable and “undemocratic” factor in calculating a state’s pledged delegates.

Massachusetts has 93 pledged delegates at the convention, while Georgia has 87 and Virginia has only 83. Yet Georgia had a population of more than 9.5 million in 2007 according to the Census Bureau, while Virginia’s population was more than 7.7 million and Massachusetts’ was less than 6.5 million.

Georgia had more than 3 million more people than Massachusetts yet has fewer pledged delegates because of the allocation rules.

Three U.S. territories (American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands) and Democrats Abroad together account for 17 delegates. That’s more than seven states or the District of Columbia have at the convention — even though the three territories don’t cast electoral votes for president, and Democrats outside of the United States at the time of the election cast their ballots in their individual home states, not as a discrete entity.

Letting those 17 delegates help pick the party’s nominee clearly “dilutes” the votes of the other states.

Finally, it’s easy after the fact to second-guess rules — rules that often are adopted in response to an earlier problem. Not every rule is of a capricious nature or intended for some evil purpose. The question is whether they are inherently unfair or unreasonable.

Nobody has yet complained that the Democratic nomination for president could be determined by independents or Republicans, though that certainly is the case. Yet the votes of loyal party members undoubtedly have been diluted in those states that have open or semi-open primaries.

Superdelegates will, no doubt, consider a number of factors in deciding how to cast their votes, from their own judgment to the electability of the candidates to the wishes of the folks back home. That’s as it should be. But whining about backroom deals and democratic principles isn’t the way to go, and instead of creating chaos, superdelegates could ultimately add a measure of good sense to the party’s selection process.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 19, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Messages From Maryland and Virginia May Be Contradictory

By Stuart Rothenberg

There were four, not merely two, interesting and important election contests in Maryland on Tuesday, and the results offered somewhat contradictory storylines.

In the two most high-profile races, voters backed a moderately conservative Republican, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who often has worked with Democrats, and even liberals, to pass legislation that he thought addressed the nation’s ills, and a Democrat who rarely talks specifics and instead emphasizes hope, bringing people together and ending partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, in two key downballot contests, Republican and Democratic primary voters refused to renominate two incumbents whose crimes were that they weren’t ideologically pure enough, as evidenced by the fact that they sometimes voted with their colleagues across the aisle.

In Maryland, state Sen. Andy Harris (R) defeated nine-term incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) 43 percent to 33 percent in the state’s 1st Congressional district. State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R), a relatively late entry into the primary, came in third at 21 percent.

Gilchrest, who has had a number of primary opponents in the past but has always been able to win renomination with at least 60 percent of the vote, drew fewer than one in three GOP primary voters, a stunning rejection.

In Maryland’s 4th district, eight-term incumbent Rep. Albert Wynn (D) was treated equally roughly by primary voters. Challenger Donna Edwards, who came within 2,800 votes of denying him renomination in 2006, drew 60 percent of the vote to Wynn’s 36 percent.

Both Harris and Edwards ran heavily ideological primary campaigns and were banked by national interest groups.

Harris complained that Gilchrest wasn’t conservative enough, particularly on issues such as the war in Iraq, immigration and spending, and he was backed by both the anti-tax Club for Growth and the National Rifle Association.

Edwards complained that Wynn had too often supported President Bush’s positions, including on Iraq, the estate tax and energy policy, and she benefited from heavy advertising by the Service Employees International Union and, two liberal Democratic groups.

Admittedly, there are differences in the presidential and two Congressional elections in Maryland. McCain and Obama won statewide, while Gilchrest lost in one of only two solidly Republican districts in the state and Wynn was defeated in the most anti-Bush Congressional district in Maryland, based on 2004 presidential election results.

Still, the results suggest that the next president will have a more difficult job, not an easier one, bringing Americans — and Members of Congress — together next year. A House without Gilchrest and Wynn is a House with even fewer Members in the middle.

The Maryland and Virginia presidential results are noteworthy because they have changed the shape of the Democratic contest. In both states, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) improved his showing among some constituencies that in past primaries were carried overwhelmingly by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), including Democrats, downscale primary voters and even older voters.

Those results could well mean that Obama’s campaign has successfully changed the way Democratic voters are evaluating the race. But even if that isn’t really happening — even if Clinton voters aren’t defecting to Obama or undecided voters suddenly gravitating en masse to him — Obama could benefit from the mere perception that he is now the frontrunner in the race.

University of California at Berkeley political scientist Henry Brady, who has written extensively about elections and momentum, recently told me that he considers momentum to be the result of either “increasing name recognition and knowledge” and/or a candidate’s “increasing chance of winning the nomination.”

Brady, no doubt, is referring to the “bandwagon effect,” a well-established dynamic that describes the dynamic of voters gravitating to the frontrunner to be with a winner.

Obama’s clear-cut wins in Maryland and Virginia, coming after a series of less important primaries and caucuses on Feb. 9, are now earning him the label of favorite or frontrunner. Wednesday morning, a headline screamed “Obama Frontrunner.” NBC’s “First Read” began in much the same way, looking at the upcoming contests and suggesting that Clinton was the clear underdog.

This could make Obama appealing to more voters, and even to superdelegates, over the next few weeks.

And yet, prior to Tuesday, victories in the Democratic nomination contest didn’t produce any obvious “bandwagon effect.”

Obama won Iowa, but it didn’t give him “momentum” to New Hampshire. And Clinton didn’t have momentum out of New Hampshire and Nevada and into South Carolina. Obama didn’t have momentum out of South Carolina. And Super Tuesday didn’t give Clinton momentum into last weekend’s primaries and caucuses.

So far, voters in each state haven’t paid much attention to previous results. Instead, they’ve been making their own decisions.

Still, there is no doubt that Clinton needs to change the narrative that is developing that Obama has moved ahead of her and has a chance to sew up the nomination on March 4, in Texas and Ohio, two now-crucial states for the New Yorker.

But don’t yet fall into the trap of thinking the Democratic race already is over. This contest already has had plenty of surprises, and more could still be ahead.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 14, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Evidence of Evangelical Shift is still Slim

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Evangelicals may be shifting away from the Republican Party, but a recent poll doesn’t offer compelling evidence to support that claim.

The poll is another example of the need to examine numbers critically and cautiously, instead of taking them at face value.

Because the media consortium’s national exit poll, conducted by Edison Media Research, did not ask Democratic primary goers if they were evangelical or born-again Christians, Faith in Public Life and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a “progressive” think tank, commissioned Zogby International to conduct its own exit poll in two Super Tuesday states: Missouri and Tennessee.

Both of these groups, along with Sojourners founder Rev. Jim Wallis, have spent months trying to build a rhetorical storyline of evangelicals running away from the “Religious Right” and the Republican Party. Given that, it’s no surprise that their poll backed up their claims.

At best, the data are inconclusive. But many are likely to conclude that the poll and memo are examples of a group trying to be too cute with numbers and language in an effort to promote their cause and lead journalists to a particular conclusion.

According to the Faith in Public Life memo, the February 5-6 survey “demonstrates the diversity of evangelical voters and the need for more thorough polling and careful analysis.” That’s a safe conclusion, of course, but the report’s other conclusions are not nearly so persuasive.

According to the poll, 34% of white evangelical voters in Missouri and 32% of white evangelical voters in Tennessee participated in the Democratic primary. The memo treats these numbers as remarkable and a dramatic development, but a considerable minority of evangelicals have been voting Democratic for several decades. A February 11 Reuters headline captured this political reality well, “Polls show some U.S. evangelicals vote Democrat.”

But instead of just putting the numbers out on their own, Faith in Public Life offered a flawed and misleading suggestive comparison to the 2004 general election. According to the memo, “One in three white evangelical voters in Missouri and Tennessee participated in Democratic primaries. Comparatively, only one in four white evangelical voters in Missouri and Tennessee supported John Kerry in the 2004 general election.”

This is one of those “apples to oranges” comparisons that simply ought never be done. You can’t compare general election voter behavior from four years ago with primary election voter participation.

Primary and general electorates are very different in both their size and makeup. And since both Missouri and Tennessee have no party registration and open primaries, any registered voter can choose which primary to participate in. That means it is virtually impossible to draw conclusions about the makeup of either party’s electorate since there are almost certainly some crossover voters from the other party, as well as Independents, in the mix.

The folks at Faith in Public Life must have known that the media couldn’t resist the story. “White Evangelical Vote for Democrats is Up,” according to an online article for U.S. News and World Report. A Christian Post story trumpeted the same analysis. While acknowledging the lack of relevant historical data, Faith in Public Life still put forth the flawed 2004 comparison that would lead reporters to their desired conclusion.

“The media is operating with an outdated script,” according to Wallis, a widely known politically liberal evangelical, “And the experience I’m having on the road confirms the data.”

Wallis, who has been a leader in promoting the political irrelevance of religious conservatives, is simultaneously promoting his new book that hinges on the notion that evangelicals are becoming less Republican. So it’s not surprising that the data and anecdotal conversations from his book tour(s) match up with his vision for the evangelical community.

The net increase of Democratic evangelical voters is only one supposed take-away from the poll. Faith in Public Life is also trying to promote white evangelicals as a critical part of the Democratic coalition.

But by polling two Bible Belt states, it’s difficult to extrapolate out the percentages of white evangelical voters to the national Democratic Party. In 2004, white evangelicals made up 51% of the entire electorate in Tennessee and 35% in Missouri, so it’s not unreasonable to think that the percentage of Democratic evangelicals will be lower in coastal and New England states.

There is also a significant problem with the margin of error and small size of the subsamples in the poll, but that didn’t stop Faith in Public Life and Zogby from trumpeting the results.

The poll showed Sen. Hillary Clinton easily defeated Sen. Barack Obama among white evangelical voters. But the sub-samples were so small (n=76 in Missouri and n=116 in Tennessee) that any conclusions are not statistically reliable. Unfortunately, a February 13 item (“Silver Lining for Clinton: Evangelical Support”) chose to publish it anyway, as did an online article at Christianity Today.

There are even some statistical problems within the white evangelical subsamples on the survey’s question about the “broadening agenda.” Because of the high margin of error in the Tennessee and Missouri GOP primaries, it’s unclear whether a majority of white evangelicals support a broader agenda at all. In general, the question’s wording virtually guaranteed the desired result since a small number of people are against “ending poverty.”

It’s likely that some evangelicals are moving away from the Republican Party at the moment, since almost every other voter group in the country is doing the same thing. But the numbers in the Zogby poll don’t prove it.

It’s wise to be skeptical of any survey conducted for an interest group with an agenda. It’s especially wise when methodological questions abound, and when the analysis accompanying the data seems forced.

This story also appeared on RealClearPolitics on February 17, 2008.

Media Buy Is the Message

By Nathan L. Gonzales

It’s going to be a long year for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Through 2007, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a $35.1 million to $5.4 million advantage over the NRCC, and some Republican strategists privately express significant concern over how the financial discrepancy will play out on a district-by-district level.

In recent history, Republicans have enjoyed the financial edge. The NRCC spent more than $83 million in independent expenditures in 75 districts in the previous cycle compared with $67 million in independent expenditures in more than 50 seats for the DCCC. Now Democrats are looking at twice the financial advantage that Republicans had then, coupled with a favorable political environment.

Through the end of the year, Republicans didn’t have half the money they spent on just three suburban Philadelphia districts in 2006. The NRCC spent at least $3.5 million each in Pennsylvania’s 6th, 7th and 8th districts. And the two party committees combined for almost $18 million in spending in those three districts alone (Democrats ousted GOP incumbents in two of the three). That’s just one example of the spending battles the NRCC can’t afford this year.

In the previous cycle, the NRCC won 12 of the 31 seats where it spent at least $1 million and seven of the 17 seats where it spent at least $2 million. All but two of those seats were Republican-held. According to Republican operatives familiar with the 2006 races, the NRCC’s heavy spending played a critical role in keeping open seats in Illinois’ 6th district and Minnesota’s 6th district in the GOP column. It also helped to re-elect Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.). In other districts, such as Ohio’s 18th, even the NRCC’s $3.4 million wasn’t going to keep that seat in the Republican column.

With a new majority, Democrats do have significantly more seats to defend.

“Democrats might have a fundraising advantage, but we will have terrain and issues in our favor,” NRCC press secretary Ken Spain said. “In a presidential election year, Democrats will be forced to defend a number of incumbents who have walked the plank for [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] over the course of the previous two years.”

But individual fundraising by Democratic incumbents has been strong, with fewer resources the NRCC is going to be forced to prioritize.

“The challengers basically won’t get a dime,” one GOP strategist said.

Both committees generally give first priority and focus to incumbents, followed by open seats and then challenger races. With a number of vulnerable incumbents and more than two dozen open seats to defend, GOP challengers shouldn’t expect much more than a pat on the back from their campaign committee. If Republicans aren’t able to keep the DCCC on the defensive, more Democratic money could be freed up to challenge GOP incumbents.

NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has explained to his colleagues that the days of campaign welfare are over and that incumbents will no longer be rewarded for incompetent campaign operations. In fact, then-Indiana Rep. John Hostettler’s (R) loss in the previous cycle was probably a net gain of a couple of million dollars for the NRCC going forward. He was an abysmal fundraiser, and the NRCC frequently had to bail him out financially.

Even if Republicans keep pace with Democratic fundraising this year, the NRCC still will face a huge financial disadvantage. That means the DCCC could spend at least $1 million in each of anywhere from 15 to 25 races without a paid response by the NRCC.

Depending on the media market, that could translate into anywhere from a two-week to two-month onslaught of Democratic ads. Of course, in some cases, Democratic money and message may not be enough to swing a heavily Republican district. But in a competitive open-seat or challenger race, $1 million unanswered could be very significant.

Republicans also are defending seats in very expensive media markets. In the New York City media market, the NRCC will have to decide how much to spend on the New Jersey open seats (the 3rd and 7th districts) and Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays’ 4th district seat. The NRCC will also have to decide if Democratic target Rep. Vito Fossella needs help in New York’s 13th district.

In the Chicago media market, Republicans are playing defense in Illinois’ open 11th and 14th districts, defending incumbents in the 6th and 10th districts, and hoping to target Rep. Melissa Bean in the 8th district. It costs about $647 per point for critical third-quarter television advertising there (according to Media Strategies and Research), meaning a solid, weekly ad buy will cost the committee at least a half-million dollars. In 2006, each party spent more than $3 million in Illinois’ 6th district race alone.

The softening economy could help both parties by stabilizing or lowering ad rates nationwide, one GOP consultant said.

The presidential contest continues to be a key unknown factor in this cycle’s House races. According to one Republican operative, the NRCC may be able to get away with not spending money on phones and direct mail this year and rely, instead, on normal presidential turnout driven by the Republican National Committee and the presidential nominee.

And as the Democratic presidential contest drags on, it’s unclear whether the overall political dynamic and landscape of House races will shift. Right now, Republicans are defending about twice as many competitive seats but would embrace Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) as the Democratic nominee to galvanize the GOP base.

It remains to be seen how some of the Democratic freshmen in Republican-leaning districts perform in a presidential year. Republicans are consistently confident that presidential- year voters will come out and support the GOP candidate. But $1 million from the DCCC in a race can go a long way in muting some of that natural Republican advantage.

“At the beginning of the cycle, a victory would have been not losing seats. Today we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll pick up a couple,” DCCC Communications Director Jennifer Crider said. “We are realistic about the challenges ahead: We’re trying to beat history by staying on the offense, defend against Republican 527s with hundreds of millions of dollars, and have 75 seats in play — all in a challenging fundraising environment.”

One change from previous cycles could be the NRCC’s spending on polling. In the past, the committee has split the cost of surveys with vulnerable incumbents. But with limited resources, that responsibility may fall completely to the candidate. A “brush-fire” survey costs about $8,000.

In general, the NRCC will have to decide how much of its limited resources it will spend on polling to determine where to place the rest of the money.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Kennedy’s Decision to Back Obama Not So Decisive After All

By Stuart Rothenberg

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president was a huge story in the national media.

Dave Espo of The Associated Press said the Senator “is in a position to help Obama court voting groups who so far have tilted [Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton’s [D-N.Y.] way.”

Almost everyone who commented on Kennedy’s Jan. 28 endorsement said it was a big deal. Admittedly, I disagreed, preferring to stay consistent with my column of July 16, 2007, in which I argued that most endorsements in high-profile presidential contests don’t matter much.

Now that last week’s primaries are over, we can see whether the endorsement mattered. We can also evaluate the exit poll question that asked about the impact of the Kennedy endorsement.

Establishing (or disproving) a causal connection between an endorsement and a vote choice is difficult, leaving a lot of room for differing interpretations. But that should not dissuade us from taking a look at the available data.

In a piece published before Kennedy’s formal endorsement, Susan Milligan of The Boston Globe said Kennedy would campaign for Obama by focusing on “Hispanics and labor union members, who are important voting blocs in several Feb. 5 states, including California, New York, New Jersey, Arizona and New Mexico.” Espo made a similar point, though he added “lower-income, older voters” to his list.

Kennedy did indeed travel to those states and try to woo those voters for Obama. In the five states that Milligan mentioned, Clinton won four and is narrowly leading in the fifth (New Mexico). It’s possible, of course, that she would have won them even more convincingly had Kennedy not endorsed and campaigned for Obama, but the outcomes certainly at least suggest the endorsement’s effect was minimal, at best.

The Massachusetts Senator’s greatest potential impact was widely viewed as among Hispanics. Yet it was Clinton who generally won Hispanics, often overwhelmingly.

Clinton carried Hispanics in California (with 69 percent), Arizona (55 percent) and New Jersey (68 percent). In Illinois, Obama’s home state, Clinton drew “only” 49 percent of Hispanics. She ran 8 points better among them than among white voters in the state. And in New Mexico, the site of one of Kennedy’s rallies for Obama, Clinton won Hispanics by 20 points (56 percent to 36 percent), but lost white voters to Obama.

Clinton also won older voters and union members in most states, two other groups that supposedly might be swayed by Kennedy’s support for Obama. Given all of these results, it’s difficult to make the case that Kennedy’s endorsement was important.

Finally, there is the exit poll question that asked Super Tuesday respondents how important the Kennedy endorsement was, and it is to this question that I’ll now turn.

I checked 10 Super Tuesday states with primaries and found that in two of them (Illinois and Arizona), at least half of those polled said that the endorsement was “very important” or “somewhat important.” In another six states (California, Massachusetts, Georgia, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Mexico), 43 percent to 49 percent described the endorsement as very or somewhat important.

At face value, those responses suggest that the endorsement was significant. But if you look deeper, it appears that instead of the endorsement prompting people to vote for Obama, the causality worked in the other direction.

I believe that people who voted for Obama — and would have voted for him anyway — told pollsters that the endorsement was important, even if it actually had no impact on their vote choice.

As Obama supporters, they were excited by the endorsement. Moreover, journalists and talking heads told them the endorsement was a big deal. Given that, when pollsters asked about the endorsement, many respondents said it was important.

Here’s the evidence: In California, according to the exit poll, 19 percent of Democrats said Kennedy’s endorsement was “very important.” Yet almost half of those people (45 percent) voted for Clinton. Another 50 percent in California said Kennedy’s endorsement was “somewhat important,” yet almost half (47 percent) voted for Clinton.

In other words, almost half of voters in California who said the Kennedy endorsement was important didn’t vote for Obama. And that trend appeared everywhere else as well, thereby undermining the responses.

In only two states, Georgia and Illinois, did voters who said the endorsement was “very important” go overwhelmingly for Obama. And in both cases, other factors than the Kennedy endorsement (race and home-state loyalty) seemed far more important.

It’s wise to be very skeptical about survey questions that ask voters to identify their own motives, and the Kennedy question is a perfect example of why.

Ultimately, the Kennedy endorsement wasn’t important. It didn’t change things. That doesn’t surprise me. As I have argued before, this is the kind of race where voters look at the candidates and make up their own minds.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 11, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New Print Edition: Illinois 11 & Kansas 3

The February 8, 2008 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. The print edition comes out every two weeks and the content is not available online. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here is a brief sample of what's in this edition...

Illinois 11: Raising the Stakes
By Nathan L. Gonzales

If you look up “Republican headaches” in the dictionary, you’ll probably see a picture of Illinois’ 11th District. Last fall, Cong. Jerry Weller announced that he would not seek reelection, leaving Republicans with an open seat to defend in the very expensive Chicago media market.

Meanwhile, Democrats successfully recruited State Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson into the race, and she is proving to be a tenacious fundraiser. New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann coasted through the GOP primary last week, but faces a steep fundraising gap…and the possibility that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama might be on his party’s national ticket. Get the whole story in the print edition.

Kansas 3: Moore Vulnerable?

Republicans in Kansas haven’t been able to agree on much over the past few years, but it looks as if they might be rallying behind a common cause: defeating Congressman Dennis Moore (D).

Since his initial election to the 3rd District, Republicans have set their sights on the Democratic congressman. The problem is that usually too many Republicans want to take him on and a bitter primary fight between moderates and conservatives ensues.

Meanwhile, Moore continued to solidify himself in a Republican-leaning district. But this cycle, state Sen. Nick Jordan is the likely Republican nominee, and he won’t have to wrestle a member of his own party for it.

There is no question that Moore has proven his ability to win, but he sits in the kind of district that could be vulnerable to a drag from the top of the Democratic ticket. Get the whole story in the print edition.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tuesday’s Results Don’t Change the Political Trajectories

By Stuart Rothenberg

If Tuesday’s results demonstrate anything, it is that both parties remain deeply divided in their races for president.

The only difference is that the GOP’s winner-take-all system and three-way race is allowing Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) to open up a clear, and probably decisive, lead over his opponents, while Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) are locked in the tightest race in recent history.

If you are looking for one state that epitomizes the competitiveness and direction of the two contests, you need look no further than the exit polls from Missouri’s open primary (which allowed registered voters to participate in the primary of their choice), the bellwether state that was tighter than a drum on Tuesday.

In the GOP contest, McCain won all 58 of the delegates at stake by finishing third among self-identified Republican voters but winning a clear plurality of self-identified independents.

McCain once again easily won self- described moderate Republicans, who constituted just a quarter of primary voters, while drawing just under one-quarter of conservatives. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (38 percent) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (33 percent) divided conservatives.

As he has elsewhere, McCain did particularly well among critics of the Bush administration, those who disapprove of the war in Iraq and GOP primary voters who said that abortion should remain legal.

Geography also tells a story.

While Huckabee ran very credibly statewide in Missouri and throughout the South, his showing in and around the Show Me State’s metropolitan areas was unimpressive at best.

He ran a weak third in two important St. Louis suburban areas, St. Charles County and St. Louis County (by far the most populous county in the state). He also fared poorly in the two big Kansas City-area counties, Jackson and Clay, once again running a distant third.

Romney nosed out McCain in the two Kansas City-area counties and beat the Arizonan by 3 points in St. Charles, while McCain beat Romney in St. Louis County by 4 points.

Those county results confirm what exit polls through the country showed: Huckabee is a Southern candidate with considerable appeal to evangelical Christians, but relatively little strength beyond that group. It is, of course, a group of considerable importance to Republicans in some parts of the country, but it doesn’t establish the former Arkansas governor as a contender for the nomination in a three-way contest that includes Romney.

On the Democratic side, the divisions in the Show Me State reflected similar lines of fracture in the Democratic contest that we have all seen in earlier contests and that we saw throughout Tuesday.

Clinton did well among older voters (winning voters 65 and older by almost 2-1), while Obama had clear and convincing victories among Democratic primary voters age 18-39.

She also won self-identified Democrats (though only by 3 points), while Obama won independents by more than 2-1 and Republicans by more than 3-1. Independents made up 22 percent of Democratic primary voters, while 6 percent of those voters identified themselves as Republicans.

The New York Senator easily won voters from union households, who constituted more than one-quarter of all Democratic primary voters, while Obama won non-union households by 10 points, according to the exit poll.

Looking nationally, Hispanics (the exit poll refers to them as Latinos) are a crucial part of the Democratic coalition, and Obama has a problem with them. They accounted for almost 30 percent of Democratic primary voters in California, and Clinton won them by 40 points according to the exit poll. She also won them overwhelmingly in her home state, New York, and in neighboring New Jersey. She won them more narrowly, but still by a healthy dozen points, in Arizona.

Obama won Hispanics in Connecticut (where he lost white voters by only a single point to Clinton) and very narrowly in Illinois.

However, the Illinois result should be of considerable concern to the Obama campaign, for while he carried 57 percent of white Democratic primary voters in his home state, according to the Illinois exit poll, he barely nosed out Clinton among Illinois Democratic Hispanics by only a single percentage point.

With Texas coming up on March 4, Hispanics could give the former first lady a leg up for that important Democratic contest.

In state after state, Obama now racks up huge majorities among black voters, but he has carried a plurality of white voters in only one primary state, Illinois. (His caucus victories in states such as Alaska, Kansas and Idaho suggest, of course, that he is winning white Democrats in those states as well.)

The contest for the Democratic nomination shows no signs of being resolved anytime in the near future. Wisconsin on Feb. 19 and both Ohio and Texas on March 4 surely will be major skirmishes, with the Clinton and Obama campaigns each hoping to establish itself as the clear favorite for the party’s nomination.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 7, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ohio 2: A Nightmare of a Congressional Race

By Stuart Rothenberg

Every so often, I come across a great House race, such as the 2000 Michigan open-seat race where voters were lucky enough to be able to choose between Mike Rogers (R) and Diane Byrum (D). Those voters couldn’t lose, since both candidates clearly deserved to be in Congress. (Rogers won that race by 111 votes out of almost 300,000 cast.)

This year, I stumbled across the opposite of that Michigan race. The contest in Ohio’s 2nd district may well be the worst Congressional contest I’ve ever witnessed.

The southern Ohio district gave George W. Bush 64 percent of the vote in 2004 and 63 percent four years earlier. It’s a conservative bastion.

If you are a Republican and not under indictment, you shouldn’t have a hard time holding the district. Yet the district’s Congresswoman, Rep. Jean Schmidt, barely won re-election last time and again is in a fight for her political life.

Schmidt, who was then a former state legislator, was the surprise winner of an 11-candidate Republican primary to fill the seat left open when Republican Rob Portman became the Bush administration’s trade envoy in 2005. She won that primary with just 31 percent, and went on to squeak out a win in the special election by just 4 points.

The Republican got off on the wrong foot in Washington, D.C., when, shortly after her election, she called Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) a coward. She subsequently apologized, but the damage was done.

In 2006, Schmidt narrowly beat former Rep. Bob McEwen (R) by 5 points in the primary. McEwen had finished second to Schmidt in the special primary following Portman’s resignation. Then she won the general election by only 1 point. This year, she faces a primary challenge from state Rep. Tom Brinkman, who finished third in the special 2005 primary.

I don’t know Schmidt, so I can’t speak about her. But lots of Republicans don’t seem to like her. She had two close calls last time, and her own January 2008 poll shows her barely cracking 50 percent among GOP voters.

Brinkman filed with the Federal Election Commission on Dec. 19 and announced his candidacy officially on Jan. 3, the day before the filing deadline.

Why did he wait so late to decide on running? A Brinkman supporter told my colleague, Nathan Gonzales, that the legislator made the decision to run at the end of the year because “no one was stepping up to take on the incumbent.”

In fact, while Brinkman was sitting on his hands, former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich (R) filed with the FEC in May and was actively raising money and running against Schmidt.

In the candidates’ Sept. 30 FEC report, Heimlich showed that he had raised more money than the Congresswoman and had twice as much on hand as she did. As of Dec. 31, he had $266,000 in the bank to Schmidt’s $125,000. Moreover, Schmidt’s own poll showed her leading Heimlich by only 52 percent to 31 percent, with Brinkman trailing badly at 9 percent.

Veteran Ohio politicians say Brinkman doesn’t raise much money and doesn’t run good campaigns. The one thing he’s done this cycle is drive a credible primary challenger to Schmidt out of the primary.

Given the weakness of Schmidt and Brinkman, you’d think that the seat might simply fall into the Democratic nominee’s lap. And it might, even if Democrats once again nominate Victoria Wulsin. (Party switcher Steve Black is also in the Democratic race.)

Wulsin, a physician with a specialty in epidemiology, has an impressive résumé including an M.D. from Case Western and a doctorate in public health from Harvard.

But for a candidate running for the third time, Wulsin is, to put it mildly, scattered in her thinking. For example, she’s an anti-war candidate who says that she isn’t sure how she would have voted on the supplemental spending bill that has funded the war.

Wulsin ran a TV spot last month in which she pledged, “As your Representative, I will refuse Congressional health care until Congress does its job and passes affordable health care for all.”

Sounds like quite a sacrifice, doesn’t it? Of course, it isn’t, since Wulsin is covered under her husband’s “gold-plated” health care plan. When I asked her about this, she talked about the symbolism of her stand and the fact that Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) made the same pledge previously.

Then, toward the end of the interview, with half a dozen other reporters present, Wulsin referred to her son as “a nice liberal, like his mother.” Hmmm.

When asked about that comment, Wulsin went through a lengthy verbal contortion to try to explain that she really is both conservative and liberal. “What I mean by [liberal],” said the pro-abortion rights Democrat at one point, “is that I want change.”

But what, asked a reporter, did she mean when she said that she was conservative on family issues? “I think marriage is great. I think motherhood and fatherhood is great,” she explained.

What about gay marriage? “I don’t think that the federal government should tell any church what to do or who to marry. I’m all for equal rights,” said Wulsin, digging herself deeper.

Anyway, Wulsin might well get elected to Congress. But if she does, it’s only because of Schmidt. And Schmidt might win. But if she does, it’s only because the district is so Republican. And Brinkman might win. But if he does, it’s only because of Schmidt.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 4, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, February 04, 2008

For GOP, Florida Brings Another Dose of Worrisome News

By Stuart Rothenberg

Republicans got more bad news on Tuesday. No, it isn’t that Arizona Sen. John McCain has emerged as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. That’s actually good news for party officials, since McCain may well be the only Republican who has a chance to hold the White House for another four years for his party.

The bad news is that Tuesday’s balloting once again exposed a deep division with the Republican Party.

McCain proved to be the choice of moderates and liberals, the less religious, pro-abortion-rights Republicans, voters who were critical of the Bush administration and voters who had a pessimistic view of the economy.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was backed by conservatives, voters who said they favored making abortion illegal, supporters of the Bush administration and voters optimistic about the economy.

Maybe even more interesting, while the Florida primary was a “closed” primary contest in which only registered Republicans could vote, a not unsubstantial 17 percent of GOP primary voters identified themselves as “independents,” and those voters accounted for McCain’s winning margin.

We cannot know whether these “independents” are former Republicans who have not yet changed their party registration, or whether they have been and remain reliably Republican voters who simply prefer the “independent” label. But we do know that for the fifth major GOP contest in a row, McCain failed to win a clear plurality of self-identified Republicans. Romney and McCain split that group, each winning 33 percent.

Conservatives simply have not yet warmed to McCain (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won a plurality of them in South Carolina, while Romney won a plurality of those voters in New Hampshire, Michigan and now Florida), and it isn’t clear they ever will. They may, of course, eventually vote for him, but actually warming to him is a different issue.

Republicans seem divided between those who strongly want change — and are backing McCain in primary after primary — and those who remain upbeat about their president and the country, who have been more comfortable with Romney.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about McCain’s victory was his win among those voters who cited the economy as the most important issue. It was Romney, of course, who stressed his ability to handle economic issues, while McCain always stressed national security and the war in Iraq and against terrorism.

Even though Florida Republicans said the economy is the most important issue of the day, it appears they did not vote that way. Instead, they backed McCain because of his “personal qualities,” not issues, and because he represents change.

McCain surely now has an advantage in the GOP race, and he should benefit from the exit and endorsement of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Romney has the ability to spend heavily for Super Tuesday if he so chooses, giving him one last opportunity to mobilize conservatives and anti-McCain voters, especially in closed primary states. The ball is now in his court.

If the Republican results in Florida reminded us again of divisions within the GOP, the Democratic turnout in the state, in a primary with no delegates at stake, is a reminder of the Democrats’ enthusiasm.

But that doesn’t mean Tuesday night was not without its problems for the Democrats.

With the state stripped by the Democratic National Committee of all of its delegates, and all three of the major candidates still in the race promising not to campaign in the state, the sight of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton cheering on enthusiastic supporters and claiming victory bordered on the bizarre.

True, Clinton received plenty of votes in the primary, and she probably would have carried the state even if she, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) had competed in the state for delegates. But Clinton’s sudden effort to get the state’s delegates seated in Denver smacks of dirty tricks and fundamental unfairness.

Given the hardball that the Clintons have played over the past few weeks, her tactics can only inflame the Obama campaign and the Illinois Democrat’s supporters, as well as reinforce the perception that the Clintons will do anything to win.

It could well be that the Clinton campaign is more than willing to accept that risk for the sake of building momentum going into Feb. 5, especially after Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy endorsed Obama.

But Clinton appears to have a narrow advantage going into Feb. 5 anyway, and her campaign’s heavy-handed attempt to wring a benefit from a Florida beauty contest in which no delegates were at stake, and where neither she nor Obama campaigned heavily, does not put the Senator or her campaign in a favorable light.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 31, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, February 01, 2008

New Print Edition: Nevada 3 & Ohio 2

The January 30, 2008 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. The print edition comes out every two weeks and the content is not available online. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here is a brief sample of what's in this edition...

Nevada 3: One Ticket to Paradise

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Nevada Cong. Jon Porter is no stranger to Democratic target lists. Since his initial election in 2002, the Republican congressman has drawn consistent attention from Democrats looking to take over his 3rd District seat.

Democrats have yet to topple Porter, but his Clark County district was drawn to be politically competitive, and its exploding population virtually guarantees he will have another tough reelection fight.

Thus far, Porter has defeated a diverse group of Democratic candidates, including a wealthy gaming executive, a 30 year-old former Hill staffer, and a Clark County commissioner who went from Democratic rising star to a federal prison camp in Colorado after a strip club scandal.

After a number of more prominent elected officials took a pass on the race this cycle, Democratic hopes are riding on former Chief Deputy District Attorney Robert Daskas. The full story is available in the print edition.

Ohio 2: Popular Target

The only thing that changes is the year. Republican Cong. Jean Schmidt has been in Congress for less than thirty months, but she still faces critics and candidates from both sides of the aisle. Her outspoken style, comments on the House floor, and consistently poor showing in the polls makes her a consistent target in southwestern Ohio’s 2nd District.

Despite her detractors, Schmidt won four elections (primary and general elections) within a span of fifteen months, and survived the Democratic wave of 2006.

The congresswoman seemed to catch a break this cycle when former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich dropped out of the Republican primary after mounting a spirited and well-funded challenge.

But Schmidt still faces state Rep. Tom Brinkman in the GOP primary, with Democrats Victoria Wulsin (the 2006 nominee) and attorney Steve Black vying for the right to take her on in the general election.

Under most any other circumstances, this Republican-heavy district wouldn’t be competitive, but some Republicans are concerned that Schmidt will be able to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. The full story is available in the print edition.