Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but with all of the “professional left” nonsense being tossed around by Democratic elites, it’s been hard to get to. However, I actually think there is reason to believe the Democrats may do better in the November elections than many believe.  Not great, but better than they should have expected at this point.  And that’s largely based on factors that aren’t going to show up in the polls.

1. GOP Didn’t Take Advantage of the 2009 Rate of Swing

The first gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey following a presidential race is the time when parties start assessing their chances in the midterms.  One of the key indicators is the rate of swing from the presidential party’s margin of victory to an opposition governor’s margin of victory, which is viewed as a harbinger of what may lie ahead.  The opposition party’s recruitment chances frequently key off of those results, because top-tier candidates are more likely to get into a race if they think conditions will favor them.

The combined rate of  swing in 2009 was one of the largest since 1985, preceding the 1986 election disaster for Republicans:

Term State President % Party Win Governor % Party Win Rate of Swing Seats Lost
Obama 08-09 New Jersey Obama D+15.5% Christie R+4.3% D to R 19.8% ——
Virginia Obama D+6.4% McDonnell R+17.4% D to R 23.7%
Bush II 04-05 New Jersey Kerry D+6.7% Corzine D+10.5% D to D 3.8% D +31 seats
Virginia Bush R+8.2% Kaine D+5.7%% R to D 13.9%
Clinton 92-93 New Jersey Clinton D+2.37% Whitman* R+1.04% D to R 3.41% R+54 seats
Virginia Bush R+4.37% Allen R+17.38% R + 13.01%
Bush I 88-89 New Jersey Bush I R+13.64% Florio D+24.02 R to D 37.66% D+7 seats
Virginia Bush I R+20.51% Wilder D+0.38% R to D 20.89%
Reagan 84-85 New Jersey Reagan R+20.98% Kean* R+40.3% R + 19.32% D+5 seats
Virginia Reagan R+25.19% Baliles D+10.4%% R to D 35.59%

I left out 1998 and 2002 as they are considered atypical midterms.  In the wake of 9/11, the focus on national security allowed Republicans to pick up eight seats, solidifying their majority.  And 1998 was the first time since 1934 that the non-presidential party failed to gain congressional seats in a mid-term election, probably reflecting a backlash against the Republicans who were impeaching Bill Clinton during the campaign. It was also the first time since 1822 that the non-presidential party had failed to gain seats in the mid-term election of a President’s second term, although the GOP retained a majority in the House.

So it should have been all systems “go” for the GOP when the rate of swing from Democrats to Republicans in both states was extremely high.  Yet the GOP failed to take advantage of when it came to both candidate recruitment and early fundraising.  Their top recruits like Sue Lowden and Mike Castle were toppled by Tea Party candidates in their primaries, and the craziness of Dan Maes has basically thrown what was almost a sure gubernatorial pickup in Colorado to John Hickenlooper.  That weakness at the top of the ticket can have chain reactions down ballot.  In a year when they were presented with incredible opportunity, the entire GOP operation was out of touch with the party’s base and couldn’t field opponents capable of running good races.

2.  The Walking Disaster of Michael Steele

If the most important jobs of a party chair are to recruit strong candidates and raise money, Steele failed on both counts.  Big donors started abandoning the RNC earlier this year, complaining that Steele was spending money on things like private planes and five-star chefs when he should have been stockpiling money for the midterms.   Karl Rove took advantage of the situation and formed American Crossroads, a 527 that competes with the RNC for donor money.  Although that makes Rove a formidable player in this year’s election, it also means that money which normally would have gone into party coffers and directly benefited candidates instead got routed into outside expenditures.

3.  Newbie Candidates Don’t Have Experience Running Campaigns

Yes we’d all like to believe in the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington myth and think the little guy can come out on top based on spirit and gumption alone, but it’s just not true.  In an era where the average House race costs $1 million or more to run, a candidate not only has to raise that cash, they have to effectively build and manage a small business from the ground up.  They have to hire competent and professional people, manage campaign expenditures and keep their coffers from being looted by legions of unscrupulous consultants who want them to spend it all on television advertising. Most good campaign people get swept up by incumbents, so newcomers are left to pick from what’s left, which redoubles all their problems.

4.  Good Field Operations Don’t Run Themselves

It’s really hard to run a crack field operation, and if you don’t have any experience doing that, good luck to you.  Field teams are often under-budgeted and understaffed, and inexperienced candidates tend to believe enthusiasm automatically translates to the ballot box until reality kicks them in the ass.   If someone like Russ Feingold still looks like a possible win at this point, it’s because he’s got 22 field offices across Wisconsin.  Incumbents have the ability to build up volunteer networks over time that they can tap into come election time.  Challengers don’t have that, and these networks are tough to build from scratch — even if you know what you’re doing.

Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy (which Obama copied for his own campaign) was supposed to keep this turnout machinery in place across the country.  OFA was intended to take up the slack after that was dismantled.  It will be interesting to hear the assessment of various campaigns as to how well that worked after the election.

5.  Karl Rove Is Enriching Himself at the Expense of the Party

Karl Rove’s American Crossroads is a 527 that has been very good at raising money this term, largely due to the fact that big donors don’t have confidence in either the RNC or inexperienced candidates.  While much of that money may have just sat on the sidelines if Rove didn’t appear, there’s no question that he has been competing for resources.  And while it’s probably true that Rove’s operation will create and run more effective advertising than many campaigns could have done themselves, a 527 cannot coordinate or share information with the party committees or the candidates.  As much as anything, Rove’s election night wailing about Christine O’Donnell was dog-whistle to big donors, making the argument that he should be in charge of spending their money and not these wacky candidates.  But Rove isn’t going to run field operations, which are usually staffed by campaign volunteers.  And so money that might be spent most efficiently turning out voters will instead go into Rove’s pocket in the highly lucrative (for him) TV advertising operation.  Good for Rove, but not necessarily what’s best for the candidates.

6.  Pelosi Was Prepared

Pelosi took care to appoint vulnerable freshmen to committees where they could rake in a lot of PAC money like Financial Services, and then pushed them hard to do fundraising from day one.  On the downside, this turned many of them into corporate tools, a contributing factor in the current “enthusiasm gap.” But the fish stinks from the head, so that probably would’ve happened anyway. On the upside, this had a direct impact on the GOP’s inability to take advantage of the post-November 2009 environment that should have been much more productive for them.  Huge war chests early in the election cycle scared off a lot of strong potential challengers who didn’t think they could compete, and helped provide insulation for freshmen from the big waves of GOP independent expenditure money they’re now being hit with. If you look at Swing State’s analysis of where the RNCC and the DCCC are spending their money, most of the Democrats have strong Cash on Hand (CoH) advantages.

7.  The Top Tier Firewall

Ironically, Alan Grayson outraised every Democrat in congress in 4Q 2009 by fighting the banks on the Financial Services Committee, appealing to populist anti-bank sentiment that spurred small dollar donors.   But to use Grayson as an example, the Republican tilt of his district has always made him target #1 for a GOP pickup.   His current challenger, Daniel Webster, didn’t declare until late April 2010, and has always been at a serious fundraising disadvantage.  This means the GOP has to spend a lot of money to try and take seats that should have been easy pickins’ in this climate.  David Koch alone dropped $250,000 into Grayson’s district, and the NRCC has pledged $817,000.  When likely pickup seats like Perriello, Markey, and Boccierri are also prepared and putting up a strong fight, it means a serious drain of resources that won’t be available for the GOP down the food chain.

8.  Enthusiasm Gaps Always Close as Elections Draw Near

The GOP may have an enthusiasm advantage at the moment, but that’s largely because they’ve been stoking it for a year and a half with the tea parties.  There’s not a lot of room for growth.  As people become more conscious of the election and it starts to dominate the news cycle, that gap will inevitably closes. Of course, there will be any number of pundits who claim this is a symbol of “Democrats rising.”  It isn’t. It’s just what happens.  Turn them off, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

9.  The GOP’s New Contract With America Laid an Egg

This ain’t your momma’s 1994 GOP.  Newt Gingrich didn’t just pull the “Contract With America” out of his ass one day.  They had been piloting most of those programs at the state level for years, and by the time Newt released his Contract with America, the whole thing was well honed and message-tested. The new Contract with America, on the other hand, was cobbled together quickly, and almost as quickly rejected by the GOP base.  They’re not mentioning it much any more.  But the lack of a coherent GOP message has left inexperienced candidates warbling about chickens, witchcraft and masturbation, something that Democrats have successfully exploited.

10.  Obama Can Be One Hell of a Motivator When He Wants To Be

Obama’s appearance at the Wisconsin rally before 26,000 last week showed him at his best. He can work a crowd like no other, which is why Pelosi and others in leadership have been asking him to get out there and campaign in states where he can make a difference.  It’s much more helpful than appearing at private $30,400-a-plate fundraisers and castigating the rank-and-file for “sulking,” as he did last night.  His upcoming rallies at college campuses could have a huge impact on young voter registration and turnout in key districts on election day.

*******

Of course, every campaign that is down in the polls will say “we’re going to win it with our superior field operation.”  And 98% of the time, that’s just pure fantasy.  But in many hotly contested races, we’re talking about small margins that could determine the outcome.  Two recent polls (the Hill and SEIU/LCV) have Tom Perriello within one point of Rob Hurt, which is a small miracle. Also per the Hill poll, Boccierri is within four,  Markey is within three, as is Frank Kratovil (in a district Obama lost by 20 points in 2008).

The DCCC is doing triage, and has no doubt written off some races at this point.  But given the current climate, their chances look a lot better than they did last November when I put together that chart on “rate of swing” (with the help of Virginia blogger Ben Tribbett of NotLarrySabato).  It did not bode well for Democrats at the time, but it was too early to draw any conclusions.  Since that time, I’ve been consistently surprised at how sloppy and ineffective the GOP has been at taking advantage of the opportunities those figures clearly presented to them.

It’s indisputable that the Democrats will have a tough time this fall. There is just no way you can escape the fact that the party in power is going to take the heat when the country is experiencing 10% unemployment.  Higher turnout will help the Democrats, but it won’t save them.  However, small margins in key races may make a big difference, and when it comes to the kind of intense ground game we’re going to see in key races over the next few weeks, I’d have to say the incumbent Democrats are better prepared than most of their Republican challengers.  And if everything breaks towards the Democrats between now and election day, and control of the House comes down to 2-3 seats, that could provide the margins they need.