Dems touting early voting numbers as a positive sign are ignoring the realities of the political climate. Benjamin Sarlin offers five clear signs that the party is in deep trouble, from mythical last-minute surges to impotent attacks on the next Speaker. Plus, check out The Daily Beast's Election Oracle for the latest predictions on all of the major races.
Every day, a new poll highlights your opponent’s titanic lead. Journalists, meanwhile, have begun publishing your political obit. And, adding insult to injury, the party’s top consultants are trading anonymous invective in the press over who’s to blame.
It is clear: Electoral apocalypse is near.
But as a true partisan, you can’t just throw your hands up and up and surrender. Your professional duty is to find that silver lining in every cloud, spreading false hope en route to electoral disaster.
“You're never going to hear party leaders saying ‘Oh man, we're really screwed, we're totally doomed,’” says Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory. “You always want to buck up the troops and try to sound as positive as possible without being totally off the wall. There’s always a glimmer of hope.”
Spotting these signs isn’t too difficult as partisans and pundits of all sides work from the same playbook. A little disclaimer before we begin: we’re not saying the stories and arguments below are inherently inaccurate or slanted, only that they reliably pop up whenever one party’s chips are way down. With that said, here’ are some of the lines to look for when there’s a political disaster in the making.
1. This Time We’re Ready
Party officials love brushing off comparisons with blowouts past, telling reporters that they’ve since learned a thing or two about gritty campaigning—not like those screwups who used to run things (cough, 1994, cough). ”It’s no shock that this is going to be a hard cycle,” Jon Vogel, executive director of the DCCC, told The New York Times last spring. “People didn’t know that until late 1994; they ended their campaigns with money in the bank.” The latest wave of outside spending has shaken confidence, but as late as August Democrats were proudly showing off their cash advantage in battleground districts, as well as a 2 to 1 advantage over the Republicans’ House campaign committee. “Democrats insist that having so many well-funded incumbents proves false any comparisons to the 1994 election,” reported Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.
Nice try, but Republicans offered the same spin in 2006. “No Republican is being taken by surprise, unlike many Democrats in 1994,” Mike Allen reported days before the election in Time, recounting his conversations with GOP officials. Conservatives were particularly heartened by their party’s 2 to 1 cash advantage in swing districts. And if that line sounded familiar then, it might be because you heard the same spin from Democrats… in 1994, when party officials bragged about their fundraising numbers two weeks ahead of the Republican Revolution. "It shows [they] recognized the challenge and started early,” DSCC spokesman Ken J. Klein told the Post. “They were well-prepared."
2. Demonizing the Speaker-in-Waiting
Abandon all hope, ye who attack your opponent’s likely Speaker: It’s a surefire sign of a desperate campaign. Republicans tried it in 2006, aggressively targeting Nancy Pelosi in spooky last-minute ads that warned “she’ll reward illegal aliens with Welfare, Food Stamps, and free education." Now Democrats are trying the same trick with Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, whose name President Obama drops frequently on the campaign trail. It’s just as likely to fail now as it was four years ago, however, mainly because speakers-in-waiting are such obscure figures. In one recent poll, nearly 70 percent of respondents didn’t know enough about Boehner to have an opinion—and that’s just in his home state of Ohio. “I’d be shocked if more than 20 percent of the voters have a meaningful opinion of John Boehner,” Abramowitz said. “And even if they do, they tend to fall on party lines, because if you don't know much about someone generally you'll react based on party affiliation.”
3. Polls, Schmolls
When your party is down in the polls—hundreds and hundreds of polls—the natural reaction is to go after the messenger. Karl Rove famously blasted public polling ahead of the 2006 election, when he told NPR, “you are entitled to your math and I'm entitled to THE math.” The hottest current example is one that Democrats used for a confidence boost in 2004 as well: cellphones. Many pollsters don’t call mobile phones, even as a large number of Democratic-leaning voters—that would be young people—use them exclusively. Progressive bloggers have leapt on a study by Pew Research showing a slight GOP bias in polls that only call home phones and there is evidence suggesting they’re on to something. But the fact that this is getting outsize attention is as much a reflection of Democrats’ desperate search for bright spots as anything else. When it comes to polling wars, this year is nothing compared to 2008 and the constant media discussion of the so-called Bradley Effect. The theory went that surveys couldn’t be trusted when black candidates faced off with white opponents, because white voters lied to pollsters in order to appear more tolerant and supporters of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain clung to it as their last hope when all else failed. Clinton’s campaign offered several other variations as well, citing her strength with “white working-class voters” as a sign Obama was weaker than his general election polling suggested. This inspired a brutal Saturday Night Live parody, in which Amy Poehler’s Clinton cheerfully asked for the nomination because “my supporters are racist.”
“You’re never going to hear party leaders saying ‘Oh man, we’re really screwed, we’re totally doomed,’”
4. It’s a Last-Minute Surge!
In an election consisting of hundreds of individual races, it’s easy to pick a few stray data points—like Joe Sestak’s surprising comeback in Pennsylvania’s Senate race—and build a case for late breaking momentum nationwide. This is how you end up with Democratic consultants confidently talking up a comeback even as political analysts downgrade the party’s overall picture to historically disastrous levels. Be especially wary of anyone trumpeting, “the base is coming home.” For example, Democratic consultant Bob Shrum ( a potential item on this list all his own): who wrote recently that “it’s the Democratic base that’s stirring” as African-American and Hispanic voters return to the fold. Who knows, maybe Democrats will shock the world next month, but you know that similar polling gains have bamboozled partisans plenty of times before. Take Newt Gingrich, who declared in October 2006: “The Republican base seems to be coming back home” then cycled through about every argument described in this piece to support the claim. This was a popular line in 1994 as well, thanks largely to a sudden climb in President Clinton’s approval ratings. The late Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan’s final piece before the election began, “They’re coming home,” and repeated the mantra repeatedly alongside some truly awful predictions.
5. We Totally Wanted to Lose Anyway
The final phase of the party meltdown after denial, anger, and depression: acceptance. Once it becomes clear that a major loss is inevitable, expect a spate of op-eds making the case that it’s actually in the party’s best interest to give up its majorities. They may even have a good argument, but their very existence is about as ill an omen as it gets. One typical silver lining cited by pundits is that a midterm loss will boost the party’s chances in the next presidential election. Salon’s Mark Greenbaum runs with this idea, for example, arguing that the minority party’s new governing responsibilities will expose them to tougher criticism and give Obama a handy foil to rally his troops against.
“Sure, a GOP House could mean endless investigations and subpoenas, but it would also give the president a better chance at winning a second term in 2012,” Greenbaum writes.
As Republicans faced their own wipeout in 2006, conservative commentators penned plenty of pieces along the same lines. Ramesh Ponnuru took to The New York Times in September to explain that “if Republicans play their cards right, and the Democrats prove unequal to the task of running the House, the voters could put the Republicans back in power on Capitol Hill in 2008.”
Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.