Over the last several weeks, the Pollster.com average of polls testing the generic choice of Republican versus Democrat for Congress has begun to close from a spread of almost 5% down to only 2.3% advantage to Republicans. If the present trend continues, Democrats will soon take the lead.
That trend is just one more indicator that the momentum in the battle to control the two houses of Congress has begun to shift. This trend will accelerate in the five weeks remaining until Election Day. There are four particularly important reasons why:
1). The gap in daily spending between Democrats and Republicans will close.
The effect of the Citizens United case – and the disproportionate advantage of corporate-backed outside groups has been substantial over the last few weeks. Some days the advantage to the right has been on the order of 10 or 15 to one. But that advantage will diminish as Election Day approaches. Campaigns and independent expenditure committees with finite amounts of money put first priority on spending during the weeks closer to the election when undecided voters tend to make their decisions. So spending by Democrats and their allies will accelerate every week until the election.
Even if, as expected, the Republicans and their supporters continue to spend more than Democrats in key races, the relative value of each dollar spent will decline dramatically as total spending on communication rises. If a voter sees a right-wing spot six times and a spot for Progressives only once, the Right has an enormous advantage. But if a voter sees a Republican spot 25 times and a Democratic spot 20 times, the relative value of the five-spot Republican margin diminishes enormously.
What’s more, in some races, Democrats and their allies are already matching Republicans. Last week in Illinois, of the $1.5 million spent on television in the U.S. Senate race, Democrats spent $700,000 ($500,000 from the Giannoulias Campaign and $200,000 from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee) and Republicans spent $723,000 ($363,000 from the Kirk Campaign, and $360,000 from American Crossroads, the corporate attack fund organized by Karl Rove).
2). Voters are beginning to focus on the choice facing them between specific living, breathing candidates – not “generic” ballots. That contrast will not be good for Republican chances.
In 1994, the Republicans caught Democrats off guard. Not this time. Democrats have done their home work, learning every detail about their opponents. And their task has been helped along by the Tea Party’s successful efforts to promote incredibly flawed candidates in many Republican primaries.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that Democrat campaigns have pulled the trigger on a long-planned strategy to take the offensive and use this ammunition to define their opponents.
In the past, Republicans could sometimes count on Democrats to run milquetoast campaigns. This time they are coming out with all guns blazing.
Congresswoman Betty Sutton (D, OH-13) is going after her opponent, car dealer Tom Ganley, defining him as a “dishonest used car salesman” who has been sued more than 400 times for fraud, discrimination, lying to customers and overcharging them.
The NYT reports that in Arizona, Congressman Harry Mitchell (D, AZ-5) accused his opponent, David Schweikert of being “a predatory real estate speculator who snatched up nearly 300 foreclosed homes, been cited for neglect and evicted a homeowner on the verge of saving his house, just to make a buck.”
And it reports that Representative Mike Arcuri (D, NY-24) has introduced his opponent to the voters as a millionaire who “got rich while his construction company overcharged taxpayers thousands, was sued three times for injuries caused by faulty construction and was cited 12 times for health and safety violations.”
In Wisconsin’s 8th CD, Democrat Steve Kagen has unleashed ads showing his opponent, roofing contractor Reid Ribble, on tape saying he wants to “phase out Social Security.”
In races across the country, Democrats will give voters the opportunity to examine Republicans in gory detail – up close and personal -- before Election Day. Voters will be able to examine their beliefs and proposals – and their personal values. Make absolutely no mistake that the Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees, and most campaigns, have every intention of taking the offensive in personalizing these races and making the choices before the voters crystal clear.
3). President Obama has switched into campaign mode. At the national level President Obama, who has the biggest bully pulpit in the country, will use every means to define the choice before American voters.
Obama’s team has decided – correctly – to personify this choice in the person of Republican Leader John Boehner – with a little dash of Paul Ryan and his “Young Gun” associates, Congressmen Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy. Over the last few days they have made Swiss cheese of the Republican’s most recent wet noodle attempt to revive the famous “Contract with America” that helped propel them to victory in 1994. In particular they have challenged Republicans to “promise” to stop outsourcing American jobs – a subject on which their “promise” is appropriately silent, given their opposition to Democratic moves to eliminate corporate tax breaks for jobs shipped overseas.
The Administration, Democratic leadership and progressive organizations will continue to ramp up campaigns to focus attention on Republican plans to privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with vouchers. They will hammer at Republican plans to repeal the Wall Street reform bill that reined in the power of the big Wall Street banks whose recklessness cost eight million Americans their jobs.
Democrats will force the Republicans to defend their attempts to hold middle-class tax cuts hostage in order to provide a $700 billion tax break to millionaires and billionaires – which is, after all, one of the Republican Party leadership’s primary goals.
And just as important, President Obama has begun to stump the country and rouse the sleeping Obama electorate.
4). Perhaps most important, the enthusiasm gap will close.
In 1994 Democrats didn’t lose because voters disagreed with them on the issues. They lost because Republican voters went to the polls and Democrats stayed home.
The current enthusiasm gap will close for two key reasons. First, as Democrats – at all levels – sharpen and repeatedly define the choices facing the country, many occasional voters who have not been paying close attention will begin to understand the consequences of these elections.
One important group will be Latino voters, who have decided to stand up to the brazen attacks on Hispanics and their culture that have been spewing forth from Republicans across the country – from attempts to repeal the 14th Amendment, to support for the Arizona “papers please” law, to last week’s united Republican opposition to even considering the “Dream Act.”
The “Dream Act” would allow undocumented kids, who were brought by their parents to the United States -- through no fault of their own -- and raised here as Americans, to continue to get a higher education, serve in the military and apply for citizenship. For years, some Republicans have supported the “Dream Act,” but were unwilling to break with their leadership to support the bill last week when it came up for a vote in the Senate.
The same goes for gay Americans, who were denied a vote on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last week because of united Republican opposition: occasional voters from this community, too, are beginning to more clearly feel the consequences of these elections.
The same is true for Muslims who, while they constitute only about 3% of American voters, have been pretty fired up by gratuitous exploitation of Islamaphobia by Republicans coast to coast.
And the same is true for union members who increasingly understand that the economic policies of the Republicans are anti-union and anti-middle class.
And increasingly the same will go for young people, African Americans and millions of other ordinary Americans who were inspired by the prospect of economic and political change in 2008, and don’t want to go back to the failed economic policies that drove the economy off the cliff in the first place.
But there is a second reason why progressive voters will wake up before Election Day. For months, Democratic campaigns have been preparing the most robust off-year Get Out the Vote effort in American history.
For example, last Saturday the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had a National Day of Action that engaged volunteer-staffed canvasses in contested Congressional Districts across the country. On that one day, volunteers knocked on 200,000 doors.
Democratic candidates, the DCCC, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and President Obama’s field organization – Organize for America -- will have serious field programs in virtually all in-play Congressional Districts and every in-play Senate state. Those field programs will contact millions of voters before Election Day, encourage vote-by-mail and vote early programs and ultimately make millions of door knocks on Election Day itself.
My consulting firm participated in a study several years ago that showed that one door to door contact within 72 hours of Election Day increased the propensity to vote by 12.5%. A second one in the same period increased turnout almost as much.
These contacts will be supplemented by major member to member campaigns launched by organized labor and organizations like MoveOn.org.
The message from candidates, the President and leaders of important Democratic constituencies like Latinos and labor about what is at stake in this election will do a lot to increase turnout. But so will the old-fashioned message: “I won’t get off your porch until you vote.”
In the end, Republicans would have to take ten Democratic seats to gain control of the Senate and 39 Democratic seats to take over the House.
Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Delaware Republican Primary makes it almost impossible for Republicans in the Senate to take control of the gavel.
In the House, it is likely that Democrats will gain five currently-Republican seats: DE-AL, IL-10, FL-25, LA-2, and HI-1. That would mean that to take control of the House, Republicans would have to win forty-four currently-Democratic seats. Even with a huge surge at their back, that would be a real lift; more so because the polls show Republicans are actually regarded favorably by 6% fewer Americans than are Democrats. There is no clamor for Republican leadership abroad in the land – and no charismatic Republican leader who appeals to a broad cross section of Americans.
A district by district analysis shows Democrats doing better than Republicans in many swing districts.
Five weeks from Election Day, many of the pundits have already written a script that calls for a big Democratic defeat November 2. But if Democrats drive hard to the finish, if we stay on the offensive and make this election a choice, and if we do everything in our power to turn out every Democratic vote, the pundit’s script will never make it into the actual annals of American history. Instead it will be filed away in the fiction section where it belongs.