Newsweek's Jonathan Alter: "Polling numbers…won't necessarily translate into a huge victory for Democrats"

November 7th, 2005

Alter: Dems Shouldn't Necessarily Expect a Blowout

The voters might want to throw the bums out, but not their bum
By Jonathan Alter
Newsweek

In the waning October light, Democrat Linda Stender ambles from door to door in a middle-class neighborhood of Cranford, N.J. Even two weeks before a competitive election in the Seventh District, most people don't show much interest in meeting a candidate for Congress. Gotta fix dinner, one says, after briefly perusing a campaign flier. I'm not dressed right, claims another through the intercom. Later that evening, 30 voters show up for one of Stender's campaign events–about average for either her or the three-term incumbent, GOP Rep. Mike Ferguson. People have better things to do.

This is a useful reminder of what political activists know: for all the talk of increased intensity this year, voters are still preoccupied with their own busy lives, not politics. They don't watch much cable news or follow issues closely. If they bother to vote, they'll often do so based on small, serendipitous shards of information. Senate campaigns are different. In House races, lightly covered by the press, news is mostly generated by incumbents, who get to send out “franked” mailings to constituents that testify to their greatness at taxpayers' expense. And of course incumbents use their clout to gerrymander district maps so skillfully that two families living across the street from each other might be placed in different congressional districts–if such an arrangement helps protect those already in power.

Given that, striking national polling numbers like the ones we are seeing won't necessarily translate into a huge victory for Democrats. True, the party out of power has historically made great gains in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. But while the odds now strongly favor the Democrats' taking the 15 seats necessary to win control of the House, caution is still advisable on a blowout. In the last big midterm wave, 1994, Republicans had a net gain of 52 seats, but 22 of those wins came in districts with no incumbent. This year the Democrats have only eight good targets of opportunity, out of a total of 21 open Republican seats. In the worst-case scenario for the GOP, 93 percent of House incumbents will be re-elected. The voters might want to throw the bums out, but not their bum.

Stender, a 55-year-old state assemblywoman, typifies the obstacles faced by Democratic challengers. Her name recognition is in the 40s, while Ferguson's is in the 80s. How many people will vote for someone they have never heard of just because he or she is a D? Neither candidate can afford broadcast TV time, but Ferguson, a 36-year-old Roman Catholic conservative with family money, will likely have twice as much cash on hand. Snail mail, the medium of choice in House races, gives him a chance to depict himself as a moderate, surrounded by children. Instead of defending his consistently pro-Bush voting record in Congress, he hammers Stender for her record in Trenton.

While Stender wants to nationalize the election, Ferguson is keeping it local. “The two questions I get are, 'What have you done for me?' and 'How are you different from your opponent?' ” he says. He scored $5 million in “homeland-security pork” for suburban fire stations, as well as a $5 million flood-control earmark. While his “Stender is a spender” line probably backfired by inadvertently boosting her name recognition, his emphasis on her votes for tax increases is working.

Stender is trying to capitalize on the Foley scandal by dredging up a 2003 incident involving a verbal altercation between Ferguson and a college coed in a bar (it wasn't vaguely comparable to the House page matter). A record-high Federal Election Commission fine against Ferguson for taking a gift from his father may be a more relevant ethical issue. Ethics aside, a much bigger weapon for Stender is that Ferguson sided with Bush, against a majority of the House, in opposing federal funding for the use of surplus IVF embryos for stem-cell research.

The bottom line here, as in many other districts, is whether moderate Republican soccer moms will care enough about the Iraq war and social issues like abortion and stem cells to swallow their fears on terrorism and break with their tax-cutting husbands. “If the election turns on taxes, it's a problem for me,” Stender concludes. “What's trumping it is a gut-level unease with the direction of the country.”

What may, in turn, trump such unease is “GOTV”–get-out-the-vote operations. Karl Rove's eerie confidence about the midterms is a product of the Republicans' “72 Hour Program.” Beginning in 2002, the GOP perfected a system where professionals supervise a highly elaborate micro-targeting of likely voters in the last three days of the campaign. My anecdotal sense is that across the country these operations are worth at least a couple of points against the traditional Democratic combination of labor and volunteers.

As of last week, Stender's best poll still had her trailing by seven points. Even if momentum is working for her, she and the Democrats will need a tidal wave to shatter the edifice of American incumbency.

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