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The Good News for Democrats Is That They Saw It Coming

A Commentary by Scott Rasmussen

Friday, November 05, 2010

Back in December 2009, a full 11 months before Election Day, a Democratic strategist concluded that if the Rasmussen Reports Generic Congressional Ballot data was accurate, Republicans would gain 62 seats in the House during the 2010 elections. Polling at the time showed most Americans were opposed to the health care proposal working its way through Congress and that the president was losing the support of voters not affiliated with either major party. Republicans consistently maintained their lead on the Rasmussen Reports Generic Ballot all year, regardless of what events were dominating the news cycle.

Early in the year, Rasmussen Reports polling showed that Democratic hopes of winning Republican seats in Ohio and North Carolina were not realistic. In Florida, Rasmussen polling showed Marco Rubio surpassing Charlie Crist and leading Democratic hopefuls. In the end, of course, Rubio won a three-way race with room to spare.

In addition to the polling, there were plenty of other warning signs that should have concerned Democrats. It was startling to watch New Jersey voters select a Republican governor and Massachusetts voters filling Ted Kennedy’s old seat with a Republican.

For a while, some Democrats took comfort in snippets of information suggesting Election 2010 might not be so bad. Some cited generic ballot polls conducted by other firms. Others convinced themselves that once Democrats passed the health care law, voters would come to love it. Eventually, however, the reality set in. By April, even the New York Times reported that some Democrats thought the GOP had a chance of picking up 40 House seats to win control. The Times also noted that “Democrats, remembering 1994, will not be surprised this time” and that Democratic candidates were warned “against being overly confident, pressing them to raise money now and begin attacking prospective opponents.”

Many suggested that this awareness of the threat would help Nancy Pelosi’s party limit the potential losses.

The warnings kept coming. In May, Rasmussen Reports released polling showing a relatively unknown businessman running even with long-time Democratic Senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. While some dismissed the results at the time, that unknown businessman is now Senator-elect Ron Johnson.

Despite the advance warning, the writing was on the wall when Election Day arrived. While a few partisans clung to the belief that the results were unpredictable, no credible analyst suggested it was possible for the Democrats to retain control of Congress. The vast majority correctly expressed confidence that the GOP gains in 2010 would be bigger than they had been in 1994.

And that’s exactly what happened as Democrats lost more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate,

In the wake of a devastating loss, it might seem odd to suggest that the Democrats were helped because they saw it coming. But a review of the data and anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers could have been much worse for Pelosi’s team.

Most significantly, Democrats were able to focus their attention and resources on building a firewall to protect their control of the Senate. During the closing weeks of the campaign, Democrats closed the gap in places like Illinois, Pennsylvania and Colorado. In West Virginia, Governor Joe Manchin overcame a lethargic start to his campaign and won convincingly while promising to oppose the health care law and other Democratic initiatives. Big names were brought in to help Patty Murray survive in Washington.

The Real Clear Politics (RCP) polling summary highlights just how effective this approach was. In all seven states considered a Toss-Up by RCP, the Democrats outperformed the polling averages. In fact, the final results for these races showed the Democrats doing better than at least 82% of all polls conducted by all firms during the closing weeks of the campaign (the final margin is not yet known in Washington, so this number might increase a bit).

While Democrats were outperforming expectations in these competitive Senate races, outside the firewall the Republicans were as likely as the Democrats to outperform the polls.

The advance warning probably helped save a number of Democratic seats in the House as well. Think, for example, about Barney Frank in Massachusetts. The long-term incumbent loaned his campaign $200,000 to stave off a relatively untested challenger and campaigned harder than he has in years. Frank ended up winning fairly comfortably, 54% to 43%, but what if he hadn’t seen it coming?

The advance warning also may have saved Democratic incumbents in challenging districts like Nick Rahall (WV), Mike Ross (AR), Collin Peterson (MN) and Jason Altmire (PA).

But the strongest evidence that things could have been much worse is what happened in lower level races that couldn’t receive the high profile attention needed to overcome the general political environment. At the state legislative level, the Republicans enjoyed a net gain of at least 680 seats to set a modern record.

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