Why Democrats Are Celebrating Too Quickly

Polls show Republicans are more competitive than they have been in years.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Given that even the smallest bit of good news comes as something of a welcome relief to Democrats these days, party solons are being somewhat triumphal about Tuesday’s election results.

As my bloleague Robert Schlesinger explained yesterday, the Democrats appear to have dodged a number of bullets managing, for example, to hold on to a congressional seat in western Pennsylvania that some polls showed they were in danger of losing. And they pulled off a big win in the Keystone State’s Senate primary by denying the nomination to veteran senator--and recent party switcher--Arlen Specter (who seemed almost certain to lose to former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey in the fall election) in favor of U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a former two-star admiral in the U.S. Navy. The newly anointed Democratic nominee can, at least in theory, can campaign more comfortably in the center than either Specter or Toomey.

It is also intriguing that, in Kentucky, almost twice as many Democrats turned out than Republicans to vote in the state’s two competitive U.S. Senate primaries, each of which was won by the candidate who more clearly represented the anti-establishment wing of two parties.

That said, Tuesday’s election returns don’t necessarily match up against the national polling data, which continues to show the Republicans competitive with the Democrats this year for the first time since President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004.

The latest Gallup daily tracking poll of registered voters nationwide shows that 46 percent of them favor the Republicans in the next congressional election versus 45 percent who like the Democrats, a statistical dead heat well inside the survey’s margin of error. As Gallup explains, “This is the eighth straight week that support for Republican candidates matches or exceeds support for Democratic candidates, and it is line with the rough parity between the two parties seen since January.”

It is generally accepted that the Democrats do better in polls of registered voters than in surveys conducted among likely voters, meaning the Republicans are probably in a better position than the Gallup poll currently indicates. The overall election climate, measured against Tuesday’s results and the latest data, create a dichotomy that requires explanation.

The easiest answer is that the races turned on the candidates themselves, rather than on the electorate’s feeling about President Barack Obama or the way the Democrats have been running Congress. It is certainly true that rank-and-file Democrats in Pennsylvania did not embrace Specter in the way that some Democrat-to-Republican party switchers, particularly in the South, have managed to find a home in the GOP. Specter was never able to escape the notion that he had crossed over because it would be easier for him to hold his seat rather than out of deep-seated personnel convictions. [See where Specter got his campaign cash.]

In the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District the Republican, Tim Burns, was hammered badly over his support for the Fair Tax, which Democrats incorrectly but effectively argued would be a major tax increase on the working families that populate the district.

But before arguing that these or any of Tuesday’s results represent a repudiation of the GOP consider that the party is showing strength and competitiveness in places where it had recently gone to pot. In Pennsylvania’s 12th district, for example, the GOP should never have been competitive in the first place because it is an undeniably solid and safe Democratic district.

It is far more likely that these elections turned on mechanics rather than on party allegiance or ideology. As in Utah, where veteran GOP U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett was denied renomination through the party caucuses, the more motivated and active voters are showing how their involvement can and is making a difference, at least on the margins. The Democrats have been working their voters through the primary process in ways that belie the idea the party is moribund under Obama’s leadership. It was by identifying and turning out voters that might otherwise have not become involved in the process that Obama won his party’s presidential nomination. And it was by boosting turnout that he managed to post such a decisive win against Republican John McCain in the 2008 election. It now looks as though the primaries may be a beta test of the party’s strategy for the general election, to boost turnout in a off-year to presidential levels and thereby mitigate the success the Republicans expect to enjoy.

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