How Republicans Can Avoid Blowing Their Lead

The latest polls suggest the Dems are gaining ground as the midterms loom. Don’t believe the hype. Mark McKinnon on why the GOP will win big—if they run scared. Plus, see our election oracle that forecasts the major races.

Right now the GOP has message, money and momentum. It's going to be pretty hard to screw it up. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Well, it was inevitable and predictable. Political physics have kicked in: Some polls are tightening. Democrats, the press and some opinionators are doing cartwheels over headlines suggesting it may not be such a GOP rout in November. Like the witches in Macbeth, they stir the pot and conjure ruination.

But have the fundamentals changed? No.

We are easily distracted by shiny objects, like Democratic resurgence, the Tea Party or prospects of a red-tide tsunami in November. And pundits get carried away with wild predictions. While these passionate prophecies increase interview bookings, like most crazy conjectures they are instantly forgotten after the election hangovers fade.

Everyone should take an aspirin, sober up and look at the stubborn data that hasn't changed substantially in the last few weeks.

It’s easy to tweak poll numbers. In last month’s Washington Post/ABC poll, the selected representation of registered voters created a five-point advantage for Democrats over Republicans, though both Gallup and Rasmussen show the partisan gap at just a single point. Despite the blue-friendly weighting, the poll showed confidence in the Democratic Party had shrunk from a one-time 12-point advantage to just two points. And among likely voters, with no split shown, Republicans held a huge 13-point advantage on a generic congressional ballot.

Scary headlines ensued for the Dems from that poll.

Peter Beinart: How the GOP Will Lose Public SupportDayo Olopade: Midterm Scramble for Youth VoteElection Oracle: Prediction for the Hot RacesNow, in this month’s Post poll, the Democrats are racing back! Or, are they? The Democratic advantage over Republicans among voters is now almost double last month’s, at nine points. And surprise, surprise, the Republican lead on the generic congressional ballot among likely voters has been halved, to only six points.

Scary headlines now ensue for the GOP.

Is the gap closing? Probably. It always does as you get closer to an election.

If one were cynical, one could wonder about the sudden jump in oversampling of Democrats. Engineered results, or an honest difference of opinion? Of course, it could be Democratic voters are suddenly thrilled now that Congress is adjourned.

It looks like the day after the election, the headlines will be Republican rout, Democrat ruination. For one news cycle anyway.

Voter turnout, as always, will be key this election. Enthusiasm is still 20 points higher among voters who identify themselves as Republicans and “ very enthusiastic.” And independents, the most anti-incumbent, are leaning heavily Republican, 53 percent to 33 percent.

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A new Gallup poll shows the Republican advantage in double digits. Fifty-six percent of likely voters are inclined to vote for a Republican, 38 percent for a Democrat. If slightly higher turnout is assumed, the GOP still leads 53 to 40 percent.

With support for their healthcare legislation plummeting further, with unemployment figures still hovering around 10 percent, and with the prospect of crippling tax increases come January, Democrats have little positive to campaign on. With attacks on Bush and Boehner not taking hold, and the metaphor of the car in the ditch getting mighty rusty, they’ve decided the only strategy left is to launch ludicrous and personal attacks against their opponents. These are sure to backfire.

The always-entertaining Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) accused his challenger, former Florida Republican House Leader Daniel Webster, of supporting a Taliban-like religious zealotry and degradation of women. The smear was so offensive, and the selective editing of Webster’s quoting from the Bible was so egregious, even MSNBC took Grayson to task.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), running against state Assemblyman Van Tran, resorted to race-baiting, warning Latino voters in a Spanish-language broadcast on Univision that Republicans – and the Vietnamese – were trying to take away their seat. She also accused Tran, whose family first came to America in 1975 when evacuated by the U.S. Army a week before the fall of Saigon, of being “ very anti-immigrant.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) arrogantly ridiculed members of the Tea Party movement for quoting “from the Constitution, the idea that free people can govern themselves, that the government’s powers are derived from the consent of the governed…They embrace the 10th Amendment. They’re tenthers!” Her challenger, legal researcher and author Joel Pollack, immigrated with his family to the U.S. from South Africa in 1977 and became a U.S. citizen in 1987. Pollack is one of just a few Republicans ever endorsed by the colossus of civil liberties law, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.

The more Democrats accuse Tea Party candidates of being extremists and witches, the more powerful the movement grows. Despite the millions of dollars spent by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), that “crazy” grandmother, former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, is now neck-and-neck in a race against the most powerful man in the Senate. In a state with the highest unemployment rate, more than half of registered Nevada voters agree with Angle that the best way to improve the economy is to "allow private business to create jobs by decreasing government regulation and reducing taxes."

Though the red tide is rising, overconfidence can swamp even the best campaign strategists. Attorney General Martha Coakley lost the 47-year “Kennedy seat” to a little-known state senator, now U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA). The one-time shoe-in Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, running as an independent after being rejected by Republican voters, now trails former state House Speaker Marco Rubio by double digits in the Senate race. And once untouchables, now trailing, have blown big leads, like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA).

Newt Gingrich, despite his seconding of author Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-colonialism psychoanalysis of President Barack Obama, is still a pretty good campaign strategist. Today he recommends Republican candidates go on the offensive to close out the campaign.

“This year, the House Republican’s Pledge to America has set the stage for a powerful, symbolic closing argument for candidates seeking to unseat the left-wing, big spending, job killing Democrats: paychecks versus food stamps…[I]n June, more food stamps were distributed by the government than ever before in American history,” Gingrich says. (It turns out that Barack Obama’s idea of spreading the wealth around was spreading more food stamps around.)…[I]n January 2007, when Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid took over Congress, unemployment was 4.6 percent and food stamp usage was around 26.5 million Americans. Today, the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent and over 40 million Americans are on food stamps.

“Compare this to our record after we took control of Congress in 1994. In four years, unemployment fell from 5.6 percent to 4.2 percent and food stamp usage dropped by 8 million Americans thanks to record job creation…You can use this vivid contrast between the record of the Pelosi-Reid Democratic Congress and the last time the Republican Party took control of Congress to powerfully illustrate the difference for every American between the Democratic Party of food stamps and the Republican Party of paychecks...Which future do I want? More food stamps? Or more paychecks? This is the choice we want to drive home again and again for voters from now until Election Day.”

Agree with him or not, Gingrich knows that in the final days of an election, as Democratic strategist James Carville advises, you want to "have your fist in their face, not theirs in yours."

The Daily Beast Election OracleMoney in elections always flows toward the winning party. Democrats outraised Republicans almost two-to-one in 2006. Republicans are reversing the trend this year. Though donations to the Republican National Committee are down, at about half the level of the Democrat National Committee in the last few months, cash is flowing in to conservative candidates, organizations and the new Super PACs, independent expenditure-only committees with unlimited giving potential. So much so, according to the AP, that Republicans have “a crushing six-to-one advantage in television spending, and now are dominating the airwaves in closely contested districts and states across the country.”

Nevertheless, for GOP candidates to take advantage of the electoral winds blowing at their back and cross the finish line first, they cannot relax for a second. There are only two ways to run a political race: scared or unopposed. You have to run like you’re losing. I remember in 2000 going into the final weekend of the presidential election when the Bush campaign was up by three to five points. A last minute news story that broke on Friday before the Tuesday election resulted in a race decided by the Supreme Court. No matter how good things look, stuff happens. It's what keeps politics surprising and interesting.

Right now the GOP has message, money, and momentum. It's going to be pretty hard to screw it up. Sober or drunk: It looks like the day after the election, the headlines will be Republican rout, Democrat ruination. For one news cycle anyway.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.