By Ken Feltman
Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.
– Mae West
Reaction to recent Radnor Reports came quickly and furiously. First, the idea that Democrats were closing the gap on Republicans and might retain the House was cheered and challenged. Next, Jeb Bush running for president was viewed as a joke or skeptically.
Democrats were buoyed by the idea that their candidates might be closing the gap. Democrats were but have hit a rough patch again, perhaps due to the President’s comments on the Mosque near Ground Zero. Republicans were quick to point out that they disagreed, sometimes in a disagreeable way. Why do partisans think that they make their point better when they resort to insult?
A self-described conservative asked: “Could the gap in the polls close enough by election day to keep the House in Democratic hands?” Clearly, that is possible, but from Radnor’s point of view, it is growing less likely each day. Perhaps it’s the wrong question. Radnor believes that by concentrating on poll results, and ignoring on-the-ground issues, the media and some “talking heads” are projecting a “gap” that may not be there – yet.
Few projections factor in candidate fundraising, for example. Money talks in politics, whether or not we like it. In many key districts, the Democratic candidate has a fundraising advantage over the Republican. This may be the difference between winning and losing in over a dozen districts that are generally put within reach of GOP candidates today. How many of those seats will slip away without the money it takes to compete against better-funded Democrats?
Candidate quality is more difficult to measure because Vermonters look for different qualities from those desired by Georgians and Coloradans. Those who have met a large number of candidates – and those whose task it is to evaluate candidate quality – conclude that, on balance, the Democrats have more electable candidates. So far this primary season, Republicans have selected less electable candidates more often that the Democrats (Kentucky and Nevada, for example). Democrats picked a more viable candidate in Pennsylvania. This does not mean that the chosen Republican candidates will not prevail. It creates doubt.
Republicans begin with a head start in the House. Because many urban districts are overwhelmingly Democratic, the generic Congressional preference polls overstate the number of seats that Democrats may win. The GOP wins more seats by narrower margins than the Democrats. In a big year, Republicans can sweep every close race. Combined with this structural advantage, any wave this November could swamp the Democrats. Still, the Democrats have a recent history – in districts across the country – of running more efficient, effective campaigns.
Tea Party inflation of vote totals?
Measuring voter intensity is tricky. Traditionally, a larger turnout in Republican primaries should mean more GOP votes in November. Some researchers think that the Tea Party has inflated GOP vote totals when a Tea Party candidate has contested the GOP nomination. A few pundits argue that turnout by right-of-center voters may drop in November. Balanced against that is the fact that on the “generic Congressional” ballot, Gallup has just recorded that largest disparity ever (51% to 41%) and it favors the GOP. Projecting that disparity would give the GOP a net gain of over 75 House seats and control of the Senate. Counterbalancing that, Gallup and others show that the Republican Party is even less popular with voters than the Democratic Party.
Look at on-the-ground strengths and weaknesses: The Democrats have better absentee-ballot and get-out-the-vote operations. But will that be enough to stop the wave? Probably in half a dozen to a dozen House and Senate elections, yes, the Democrats will win because they out-organize the Republicans. A good ground game can make the difference in close elections.
With less money, less appealing candidates and less effective campaigns, what can Republicans expect? Not as much as currently forecast by the most optimistic Republicans. Maybe a good guess is 45 to 55 House seats and a standoff in the Senate. Even if Republicans ride the wave to victory this year, if the party does not tend to these problems, they will only defer troubles till 2012 and beyond.
A tactical change by Democrats may fail
If the Democrats have a fatal flaw, that flaw is running a presidential election year campaign in an off year. Because Democratic research shows that voters are still repelled by former President George W. Bush, the Democrats are comparing and contrasting their policies with the Bush era. In other words, the Democrats – led by the White House – nationalized the election. Radnor’s research shows that this tactic worked a few months ago but no longer. So will Democrats keep using it? We have the answer: Some Democrats are running against Obama.
Other factors: Blaming Bush has a flip side. It solidifies independent and GOP opposition to Democrats. One final problem for Democrats: Obama is now less popular than Bush. Oops! The White House did not see that happening.
Off year elections are usually a referendum on the party in power. Obama and the Congressional Democratic leaders were hoping to change the structure this year. Now they realize that will not work. Will they be able to shift in time to ride out the wave? That is the key question this year.
Wait a minute! What’s this about Jeb in 2012?
A German graduate student at Cambridge summed up his frustration: “Wait a minute! You put too much in space too small. Hillary may run? What? Obama may quit? What? Bush III may run? What? But he will not run? What? Instead, Bush III hopes that the Republicans figure out that they need him? What? One at a time!”
Okay: One at a time. First, look at Hillary Clinton, busy being the most effective secretary of state that she can be. Since at least high school, Hillary Clinton has been driven to achieve and has done her homework meticulously. At Yale, she went nuts because she had to study and cram to get grades comparable to former President Clinton. Bill Clinton seemed to be one of those rare students who can stand up and give an A+ analysis of a court case that he had never read. He forced Hillary to compulsive lengths of preparation. Henry Kissinger once remarked that winning diplomacy often consists of over-preparation. After a time, the other side has nothing left to say.
What works for diplomats does not work for politicians. Over-preparation is a killer in political campaigns. Too much analysis and too many position papers take the spontaneity out of a candidate. Reporters and voters feel it. The candidate sinks, as Hillary Clinton did in 2007-2008. But careful, full preparation leads to excellent campaign infrastructure. Hillary Clinton had the best people and structure for a presidential campaign in 2008. Indeed, she built but did not launch the best campaign organizations in 2000 and 2004. She was as ready as any candidate has ever been. Things got a little stale by ’08. The structure got in the way and she could not change course quickly enough.
What got her up and running – that maniacal preparation – will launch her in 2012 if she decides to run. This time, she will have Bill Clinton and his magic affability from the beginning, not as a lifeguard jumping in as she goes under for the third time.
Will Obama run?
Probably, but there is enough doubt to make political junkies happy. Expect pundits to compare President Obama in 2012 to President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, with Hillary playing the role of Robert Kennedy and – according to a friend who knows him well – Rep. Dennis Kucinich playing the part of the challenger from the left played in ’68 by Senator Eugene McCarthy. I doubt it.
Kucinich is old news and will not be taken seriously. More than a symbolic but impotent push from the left will be required to dislodge Obama. Kucinich may hope that lightening will strike this time, but he is dogged by sniping ridicule and quips such as one made after a candidate debate in 2007 by former Senator John Edwards: “Even his wife doesn’t support him.” How ironic, Mr. Edwards.
The prospect of losing the White House will not discourage enough convention delegates from renominating Obama, if he wants it. Remember, after the turmoil of the 1968 convention, the Democrats changed their nominating rules to make it easier for insurgents. Then Democratic Party insiders interpreted, re-interpreted and applied the rules to, in fact, make insurgency less likely. Obama has disappointed many on the left but how much will that matter? Only the fringe will clamor on the left, as it always does in Democratic politics. The answer to the question whether the extreme left will be able to take control of the nominating process is simple: When the extreme left can do that, it is no longer the extreme left. The fringe is called the fringe because it is the fringe. The fringe is not likely to supplant the entrenched leadership of the Democratic Party.
In addition, hundreds of people and their families depend for their livelihood on Obama staying in office. They are more important in the scheme of things now than before Obama’s election. They will have an outsized role in the nominating process. This shadow of supporters is always a factor in second terms. They have burrowed into key Democratic party jobs as well as important government positions. The pressure the payrollers exert can be conclusive.
Obama will make his own decision, guided by his closest advisors and his family. He will know that the advisors want another four years. Michelle Obama, according to reports, loves her role. Only gloomy polls will dissuade Obama, who probably will continue to believe that if the American people will just listen to him, he can convince them.
If you talk to enough Republicans across the country, you realize that many are having trouble supporting any of the current batch of candidates. For various reasons, these GOP activists are unhappy with those on the list now. Because of that, a surprising number are looking for a “fresh face” – and they are giving dark horses such as Senator John Thune (S.D.) a look. But ask them the question that not very many in the media are asking: “What about Jeb?” They come up with all the known reasons to conclude that Jeb Bush will not and should not run in 2012. Then they reflect. They smile. They let you know that they think, despite it all, Jeb Bush would be a pretty good choice.
His supporters reject the “Bush III” label. It scares them! They want just plain Jeb. Guess what? Jeb knows who will support him. He knows most convention delegates will wait for him or give “conditional” support to someone as a placeholder till Jeb decides. He will play his cards close to the vest, but he will play them if he thinks he can win the jackpot.