Down-Ticket Coattails?

10.10.12

As Presidential Contest Tightens, State Races Could Prove Crucial

In Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, high-stakes Senate campaigns may tip the scales in the presidential contest, writes John Avlon.

As you nervously pour over swing-state presidential polls, don’t forget to factor in one crucial variable—the rest of the statewide ticket. 

Call it down-ticket coattails. Because President Obama and Mitt Romney are not running in a vacuum. They are going to fly with or against prevailing winds in each swing state. And if a statewide senatorial or gubernatorial candidate is riding high, it makes the hurdle the presidential candidate has to clear in a tight race that much steeper or easier, depending on the down-ticket dynamic. 

Take a closer look at the three biggest swing states at stake this year: Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. All three have Senate races in play. And while the presidential polls are tightening, the Senate races are not nearly as close. 

In Florida, Democrat incumbent Bill Nelson has enjoyed a steady lead over Congressman Connie Mack Jr. for months, opening an 11-point margin in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, taken Oct. 3. If that lead holds, Mitt Romney would need to win at least one in eight of Nelson’s supports to split their ticket to win the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes. 

Likewise, in Ohio, incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, has been holding off a well-funded Republican challenger, State Treasurer Josh Mandel. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Brown leads Mandel by 9 points—meaning that Romney would need to win over at least one in 10 Brown voters to win the Buckeye State’s 18 electoral votes if the election were held today. Even with super PACs supplying 52 percent of ad spending in the state this cycle, convincing supporters of the proudly liberal Brown to vote Romney/Ryan is a trick. 

Virginia offers what has been considered the most competitive Senate race in the country, pitting two former governors—Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen—against one another. For months this race had been deadlocked at about 45–45, in a war of attrition. The week after Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comments, the deadlock broke, with Kaine and Obama both gaining a brief 8-point bounce. In the wake of President Obama’s lousy first debate performance, presidential polls have tightened considerably and the Senate race will no doubt tighten up as well. But the most recent NBC/WSJ poll showed Kaine up by 5 points—and if that margin holds, it gives President Obama a cushion in Old Dominion. 

Governors races can have down-ticket coattails as well. New Hampshire has long been viewed as winnable by Team Romney. The former governor of neighboring Massachusetts has a lakefront family home in the Live Free or Die State, and he easily won the Republican primary there. But state Republicans nominated a social conservative activist named Ovid LaMontagne—who’d previously lost a gubernatorial race to Jean Shaheen by 17 points and also lost a 2010 primary to the current senator, Kelly Ayotte—to succeed the popular four-term centrist Democrat Gov. Jim Lynch. In a state with a strong libertarian tradition, LaMontagne supports a constitutional ban on abortion and has promised to roll back the marriage-equality law upheld by bipartisan margins this year. His Democratic opponent, state Sen. Maggie Hassan, is leading LaMontagne by 2 points in both a WMUR and NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. 

On the flip side, one reason why North Carolina could be out of President Obama’s reach, despite his party holding their nominating convention there, is the lopsided 13-point lead in the governor’s race claimed by Republican Pat McCrory, the popular and effective former Charlotte mayor. The Tar Heel State’s Democrats, meantime, have been beset by a series of damaging scandals since Obama eked out a 14,000-vote win there in 2008. 

Coattails are also the reason that incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill still has a race on her hands in Missouri against Todd Akin, even after his biology-challenged “legitimate rape” comments. President Obama is almost certainly going to lose this state, meaning that McCaskill is going to need to win over some Romney voters to get reelected—one reason that she was nowhere to be seen at the Charlotte convention. 

Other Senate races with possible down-ticket coattails include Pennsylvania, where incumbent Democrat Bob Casey has a 9-point lead, and Michigan, where despite tightening presidential polls, incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow has opened up a 14.8-point lead over Congressman Pete Hoekstra, according to the RealClear Politics polling average, in a race that was expected to be competitive. 

These down-ticket dynamics don’t mean that Mitt Romney can’t win a state whose Senate race is trending Democrat—or vice versa. But it does mean that the climb is that much steeper, and it helps explain why Mitt’s new centrist strategy is essential to winning the White House. Simply playing to the conservative base will not help win over the swing voters he needs to convince to split their ticket. 

If Bill Nelson’s lead holds, Mitt Romney will need at least one in eight of the Democrat’s voters to split their ticket to claim the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes.

As an independent, I’m a fan of split-ticket voting. It is a sign of independent-mindedness—voting for the person, not the party—reflecting a desire for checks and balances. But in our increasingly polarized political atmosphere, split-ticket voting is on the decline. 

Happily (perhaps) for John Tester, Montana is the only state that has split its ticket a majority of times in recent decades. And, sadly, states that used to elect Republicans to the Senate while electing Democrats for president (like New York, Pennsylvania, and Oregon in 1992) have become more politically monochrome. 

It should come as no surprise that centrist candidates still have the best chance of appealing to swing voters and inspiring a split ticket. But in a presidential election year, with high overall turnout, the dynamics that led Republican Scott Brown to defeat Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in a 2010 special election are difficult to recreate—especially if President Obama wins the Bay State by 20 points. Likewise, in a nonpresidential election year, a Republican like former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle just might be able to pull off an upset against the state’s established trend. But with President Obama at the top of the ticket, it is a very steep climb for an otherwise excellent candidate. 

A week is a long time in politics, and it is possible that these statewide Senate or gubernatorial margins will not just shrink but even reverse, especially if Mitt Romney’s recent momentum continues unchecked. Last minute super-PAC spending is also an X-factor. But as you look at the electoral map looking for different paths to 270, don’t forget that the statewide races matter enormously.

They won’t just determine which party controls the Senate, they establish the spreads that the presidential candidates will have to clear to win the White House.