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Those Stubborn Toss-Ups

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

With just four months to go before the voting in November, many races have settled in—falling into the D or R column as Solid, Likely, or Lean. But then, there are those stubborn toss-ups. Some are unmovable since the primaries haven’t yet been held and the nominees in one or both parties are unknown. Still others haven’t gelled because candidates aren’t spending money or voters stubbornly refusing to focus on politics in the middle of a hot summer. (How dare they?)

A handful of match-ups—some of the best races this year—are nicely balanced on the knife’s edge, so much so that it is easy to imagine circumstances that will tilt them either way. These circumstances include a variety of electoral conditions:

  • Democrats hope that the economy will show more signs of life by September. If it does, some of the toss-ups may edge back toward Democratic incumbents; if it doesn’t, the bad economy could deliver many extra seats to the GOP.
  • If the BP oil gusher is capped, and the beaches are being cleaned and Gulf residents properly compensated, then it’s hard to see how this calamity will matter much at the polls. But if a monster hurricane turns a terrible situation into a historic catastrophe, Obama’s job rating may finally show some slippage due just to this.
  • Terrorism is always a political wild card—and best not thought about too much unless, God forbid, something happens. How such an unwelcome event occurs, whether government failures are partly to blame, and the manner in which the aftermath is handled will all play a role in determining how much of a factor this could be.
  • Another more likely unknown is scandal. There are so many already revealed or percolating in 2010 that we’ve half-seriously considered setting up a separate website to keep track of them all. You also never know what bombshells the candidates’ opposition research teams have turned up, items that are currently on the shelf awaiting the right moment to spring on an unsuspecting opponent. And oh yes, there will be YouTube moments provided by the candidates themselves, an indelicate phrase here or a shoving match there, and these will spread like wildfire—potentially dooming some politicians. Not to pick on poor Sue Lowden, the defeated Republican candidate for Senate in Nevada, but so far this year, her “chickens for check-ups” bartering scheme for health care takes grand prize in the YouTube category.

Right now, the Crystal Ball has 7 Senate, 24 House, and 12 Governor contests in the Toss-Up column. Let’s take a sampling of two Senate and two statehouse races, to see why the dynamics are unpredictable as of early July.

FLORIDA SENATE: If the election were held today, Gov. Charlie Crist would take the Senate seat. If Kendrick Meek receives the Democratic nomination, it is doubtful he could even be competitive. Democrats sense this, and they might shift en masse to Crist to prevent a victory by conservative Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, the Republican nominee who chased Crist, facing near-certain defeat, out of the GOP. Crist, a moderate but also something of a political chameleon, is doing everything possible to facilitate Democratic defections by taking moderate to liberal positions on controversies that are arising, from abortion to education to the environment. But strategic voting is never easy to orchestrate. The national Democrats can’t afford to cut loose the only African-American in the nation with a real chance to keep the Senate racially integrated. And most blacks will almost certainly stick with Meek in November. Of course, that assumes Meek is the nominee. Out of nowhere, as self-funders often do, comes controversial billionaire Jeff Greene, a friend of madam Heidi Fleiss and enemy of Opie-adorable Ron Howard, which may tell us something. Greene is already tied with Meek in the primary polls. If Greene wins, will national party leaders feel free to point their partisans in Crist’s direction? Or will they be inclined to stick with a candidate whose unlimited resources might guarantee a competitive contest? It is not at all clear. Meanwhile, Rubio has to hope that there is a strong GOP wave in the fall and that the official Democratic nominee draws perhaps 25 to 30 percent of the vote. Former Gov. Jeb Bush–who despises Crist and has sponsored Rubio–also has a big stake in a Rubio victory. Bush remains quite popular in Florida. The dynamics of a three-way race are always complicated and fluid, and this one is proof positive. We’ll be watching this shoot-out intently throughout the autumn. Expect the unexpected.

ILLINOIS SENATE: Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in 2010. It has been a long time since there was a high-level competition between two politicians with this many self-inflicted wounds. The two runners are limping so badly that the winner will be the one who crawls first across the finish line. The albatross for Giannoulias, the state treasurer, is his family’s bank which was seized by federal regulators in April after it collapsed. A new ad from the Kirk camp accuses Giannoulias and his family of making overly risky loans, including loans to convicted mobsters. Meanwhile, Congressman Kirk has a bad case of resume enhancement, having invented a military award he didn’t get and teaching experience he never gained. He has also taken heat for a Hillary Clinton-type moment as he recounted being under enemy fire in Kandahar, contrary to official records. As with Democratic Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, who falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam, Kirk’s resume enhancement has been pointless. Kirk has a fine military record and he didn’t need to make the other exaggerations. The embellishments appear to be force of habit, and this reminds us of the old joke about lawyers and politicians: How can you tell when they’re lying? Their lips are moving. Illinois is used to shady candidacies, of course, but these two have energized the Green Party candidate, LeAlan Jones, who with little apparent effort is securing 14 percent of the vote in a recent trial heat. If Illinois had Nevada’s none-of-the-above ballot line, it is entirely possible that the parties would have to find new nominees for a special election after November. But either Kirk or Giannoulias is going to win, and there is only one clear path to victory—make the other candidate look so bad that the lesser of evils goes to the Senate. Sure enough, the candidates are already fiercely attacking one another, and neither is going to bother making much of a positive case for himself. If President Obama is able to exert influence anywhere in this year of his discontent, it ought to be in Illinois for the seat he once held. That may help Giannoulias as long as the nominee can put himself in a position to win. Kirk’s best shot is a sizeable Republican wave that can reconnect Illinois to its roots as the Land of [Republican] Lincoln–though we’re quite sure Kirk and Giannoulias will never find themselves with Lincoln on Mount Rushmore.

CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR: This one ought to be easy to call. The economically troubled Golden State has turned increasingly Democratic over the past couple of decades, giving Barack Obama a crushing 61% to 37% victory over John McCain. Keep in mind that McCain was precisely the kind of maverick Republican that once appealed here (though his pro-life stand on abortion didn’t fit the winning model). And the incumbent two-term Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is deeply unpopular with ratings in the upper teens and low twenties after a tenure that disappointed right, left, and middle. Contrary to his promise in “The Terminator,” Arnold won’t be back, at least in elective office in California. One would think the combination of these two factors would guarantee a Democratic return to power in Sacramento. Not quite. Democrats have chosen to reach back into their past and re-nominate Jerry Brown, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983 and has been in one public office or another for most of the last forty years. He is currently the state’s attorney general, having also run unsuccessfully for president three times. Brown was California’s youngest governor of the 20th Century, and he would become the state’s oldest ever, at age 72, if he wins in November. Brown is quirky, and underfunded, and saddled with a not-entirely fair moniker of Governor Moonbeam, coined by a Chicago columnist and now forever linked with Brown who once proposed for California to launch its own space satellite. As odd as Brown may appear, he is a canny politician, having inherited his father’s instincts. (Edmund G. “Pat” Brown served as governor from 1959 to 1967. Ronald Reagan denied Brown a third term in 1966.) His Spartan personal style may once again fit California’s need for a budgetary diet. Only an unusual Republican might be able to stop Brown, and the GOP nominated one in Meg Whitman, the billionaire ex-CEO of eBay. It’s only July, and she’s already approaching the $100 million dollar mark in self-funded campaign expenditures. It is obvious that she may spend double that, which would be an all-time record for any candidate for any office below that of president. A level of spending that is astonishing, combined with the benefits of her gender (which modifies her party’s too-conservative-for-California image), gives Whitman a real chance in a GOP-leaning year. The basic questions are on everyone’s mind. Can massive TV advertising and a purchased ground game overcome the disadvantages of the Republican label in the Golden State? Will Whitman, an excessively “handled” candidate who avoids debates and press availabilities, be able to convince voters she’s able to run a dysfunctional government—a very different animal than a large corporation? And can Brown adapt his old-formula politics to meet the unique challenges presented by this campaign and opponent?

OHIO GOVERNOR: The great swing state of Ohio is always worth watching. It doesn’t unerringly predict the national direction—JFK famously lost here to Nixon in 1960, and Obama never quite connected with Buckeyes the way he did with other Midwesterners in 2008. But on the whole, if Ohio moves solidly into one party’s camp, that party is likely headed for a sizeable victory. Thus, the battle between one-term Gov. Ted Strickland (D) and former Congressman John Kasich (R) is a marquee contest. To this point, Strickland has done well relative to the Democratic standard-bearers in other Midwestern statehouse races. Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin may all tip to the GOP this year, yet Strickland has actually gained some ground over Kasich, though he remains well under 50% in most polls. The NRA’s endorsement of Strickland was a good example why. As a congressman from a more rural part of Ohio from 1993-94 and again from 1997-2006, Strickland hued to a pro-Second Amendment voting record, and he has continued this as governor. Strickland knows how to win tough races, and he learned from his House loss in the 1994 GOP landslide. Democrats have also drawn a bead on Kasich for his association with a investment banking firm Lehman Brothers and for an unwise, disparaging comment made by Kasich’s aide about Strickland’s impoverished upbringing, insinuating Strickland could not relate to city dwellers because he grew up “in a chicken shack.” To top it all, Strickland has outraised Kasich with $7.7 million on hand to Kasich’s $5.7 million. So given all this positive news, why isn’t Ohio in the Democrats’ pocket? First, if 2010 turns as substantially Republican as it well might in the fall, Ohio will be one of the first places the trend will take hold. Second, this could be “the Obama midterm,” and not in a favorable way. Obama lost the Ohio presidential primary decisively to Hillary Clinton and had to work exceptionally hard for the 51.5% he received in November 2008. There is more than a little persistent resistance to Obama in this blue-collar state. Third, the economy in Ohio remains in the tank, with unemployment at 10.7% and major state budget trouble for Strickland. Finally, Kasich is an experienced politician, a veteran of 18 years in Congress, six of them as Budget Committee chair. Kasich is media-savvy, having hosted a show on FOX for six years and he is well known enough nationally to draw support from a wide range of leaders and donors.

On the night of November 2, everyone will look back at these toss-ups and see a bright line of events that will have separated victor from vanquished. It will all be so obvious. Except that from the perspective of July, it isn’t obvious at all. That’s why they are toss-ups, and we can’t take our eyes off of them.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato 

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