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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Putting Republicans on the Crazy Train

I've never actually been seasick, but watching Gallup's weekly polling going into the midterms gives me an idea what it must be like. At the end of August, Republicans scored a ten-point lead -- which Gallup called "unprecedented" -- in their generic congressional ballot. The press went crazy. Then, a week later, that lead was gone. Both parties were tied. This didn't match the media narrative, so this poll was widely ignored. A week later, the GOP had regained half that lead. But now this week, it's gone again, with Democrats leading by a statistically insignificant 1%. Up, down, up, down. I think I'm gonna barf.

Gallup poll graphic
Click for full sized graphic

It's hard to make any sense of this at all, other than to say that public opinion, while leaning Republican in recent months, is definitely in flux. And that it really doesn't take much to knock the GOP back a step. But the polling does come with a caveat; Republican voters are still more excited about voting. According to Gallup, a lot more.

The enthusiasm gap this past week was 19 percentage points, with 47% of Republicans very enthusiastic about voting, compared with 28% of Democrats. Republicans have enjoyed at least a 10-point advantage on this measure since Gallup began tracking congressional election preferences in March, including margins of 16 points or higher since August.

Given this continuing enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats, even a tie in registered voters' preferences will almost certainly mean the Republicans will garner the most votes on Election Day.

Registered voters may or may not be actual voters on election day, so a tie between the two parties doesn't equate to a November wash. But still, it's hard to see the Republican lead as anything but unstable. In Gallup's analysis, a lot of this has to do with some Republican candidates. They may just be too crazy for most people to stomach:

The pace of midterm congressional election campaigning is beginning to pick up, both at the individual district level, and in terms of national news emphasis. Last week's primary elections, for example, focused news attention on the potential impact of more conservative, Tea Party-backed Republican candidates on the general election. It is possible that further shifts in voter sentiment will be seen in the weeks ahead.

Shorter version: coverage of Tea Party candidates went up and the Republican Party's prospects went down.

I've seen some worries in comment threads and on social sites that people are focusing too much on personalities and not enough on policy. But those concerns ignore what those personalities actually are like. Christine O'Donnell, for example, helps cement the idea that tea party candidates are far outside the mainstream, as does Sharron Angle. Rand Paul reminds voters what they don't like about Republicans by virtue of being a near-caricature of the "pile-on-the-downtrodden" GOPer. While these perceptions won't always resonate in local races, it's clear they make some difference nationally.

In addition, Republicans are running pretty much fact-free campaigns. With a media unwilling to separate fact from fiction, this puts the truth at a disadvantage. Even if you counter lies with facts, there's nothing to back you up -- other than those same facts. It's a depressing truth that facts don't matter anymore and Republicans know it. You bring figures from the Congressional Budget Office, the Republican brings figures from the GOP Ministry of Made-Up Numbers, and Wolf Blitzer shrugs his shoulders and says there are two sides to every story -- now here's video of Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars. Having a reporter point out lies would be "liberal media bias." What do you do with that? What can you do with that?

The only avenue left to dig Democrats out of the hole is to point out the obvious and the undeniable -- a lot of these people are crazy. And not the fun-at-a-party kind of crazy, the bad kind. Put Republicans on the spot, make them defend these lunatics or cut them loose. Are you with Rand Paul on the Civil Rights Act? Do you agree with Alaska senatorial candidate Joe Miller that federal unemployment benefits are unconstitutional? Do you agree with Sharron Angle that Social Security should be phased out and the Department of Education shut down -- or that rape can be a blessing in disguise? Give Republican candidates a choice: appeal to the teabagger base or to the rest of the electorate. It's a situation most won't benefit from. Advantage becomes predicament, since most of that GOP enthusiasm comes from the feverish base. And that's not enough in all cases.

It's kind of a cliche that denying you're crazy is a losing battle. The more you deny it, the crazier you look. And the alternative isn't any better; confirming you're crazy doesn't win you any prizes either. Pin Republican candidates down on issues the craziest among them advocate, then let the unwinnable situation work its magic.

I know it seems cynical, but given our media landscape, what's left? Polling shows that the Republican advantage on anything other than enthusiasm is pretty weak. So knock the weak leg out from under them. People don't like the extremism, so make them declare their extremism or lack of it. Are you or are you not this crazy? In our current media environment, it might be the only strategy that actually works.


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UPDATE: Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has an interesting piece on generic congressional ballots and why they may not be as accurate as everyone seems to be assuming. An interesting read.