About this Blog

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> May 2010

Is PA-12 a Bellwether?

Politico's Jonathan Martin and Charles Mahtesian write this about the special election in PA-12:

All the evidence pointing to monster Republican House gains this fall--the Scott Brown upset win in Massachusetts, the scary polling numbers in once-safely Democratic districts, the ever-rising number of Democratic seats thought to be in jeopardy--was contradicted Tuesday.

In the only House race that really mattered to both parties--the special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th District--Republicans failed spectacularly, losing on a level playing field where, in this favorable environment, they should have run roughshod over the opposition.

Martin and Mahtesian make some valid points, but they are massively overstating their case. The details of last night's special election don't support the bellwether argument as these two have constructed it.

Let's begin with the political demography of the district. In 2004, George W. Bush won 255 congressional districts. PA-12 was not one of them. From 1994 to 2006, the Republicans held the United States House of Representatives, controlling as many as 232 seats. PA-12 was never one of them. In fact, the Republican-dominated Pennsylvania legislature created a heavily Democratic 12th district in 2002 by moving conservative voters around to generate the Republican-leaning 18th district (currently held by Republican Tim Murphy).

Like many districts in this region, PA-12 went strongly against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. The following chart has the details on Obama's 10 worst Appalachian districts.

Obama Appalachia.jpg

There's PA-12 in the #7 spot. Obama pulled in just 27% of the vote during the primary.

Two features stand out from this chart.

First, PA-12 had the second-highest number of primary participants, behind only OH-6. This is important because the Pennsylvania presidential primary was closed; one had to be a registered Democrat to vote. This means that there are a lot of Democrats in PA-12. These Democrats are pretty well unionized. After all, this is the district that includes a place named Uniontown! Unionized Democrats in a special election are a force to be reckoned with, to say the least.

Second, even though they did not particularly care for Obama when he faced off against Hillary Clinton, the residents of PA-12 swung behind him reasonably well in the general election. Obama did better in the PA-12 general than he did in any of these other districts. This means that these self-identified Democrats still actually vote Democratic there. That's in contrast to states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where people who call themselves Democrats have been behaving like Republicans in the last 15 years.

This is a hugely important point to bear in mind. My back-of-the-envelope calculation of the party turnout in last night's election indicates that a whopping 62% of the voters were Democratic, just 34% Republican, and a measly 4% were Independent or had a third party affiliation. If you give Republican Burns 90% of the Republican vote and 60% of the Independent vote, that means Burns won about one in five Democrats. That's a very decent haul, but it is just not enough in a district where there are so many Democrats coming out to vote.

[Sean Trende had a typically smart piece about the political makeup of PA-12 yesterday. I encourage you to read the whole thing.]

And let's not forget the Pennsylvania Senate primary. As I watched Sestak rise in the polls, and saw the flood of Senate primary advertising here in Western Pennsylvania, I knew that Mark Critz - the Democratic candidate in PA-12 - was being helped. The Sestak-Specter contest was driving up interest, and both candidates were putting out pro-Democratic messages. Both factors were good for Critz. It's difficult to quantify, but this purchased him some votes.

So, we had a political-demographic tilt of this district toward the Democrats that was enhanced by the high-profile Senate race and a presumably substantial union GOTV effort. We also had what amounted to two anti-Obama candidates in the race. If you didn't know that Mark Critz was a Democrat, his advertising would not have clarified matters for you. He ran as a pro-gun, pro-life, anti-health care reform, anti-cap-and-trade Democrat - or, as the lefty blogosphere likes to call them, a reviled "ConservaDem." Basically, he ran as a Truman Democrat, not as an Obama/Pelosi Democrat. What's more, the DCCC spent thousands on advertising that blasted Republican Tim Burns for his "support" of the Fair Tax, an idea that only the Democratic leadership is seriously considering at the moment. Most Democratic incumbents are standing for reelection, which means they will have to defend their voting records. Critz was not so burdened.

I appreciate that Democrats want to breathe a sigh of relief because of last night. And they should, to some extent. The fact that the GOP did not win this special election is evidence that 2010 is not going to be some 1938-style tsunami where the majority party sheds 90 seats. If the Massachusetts Senate race tantalized Republicans with the idea of boundless political opportunities, the PA-12 special election should remind them to keep their imaginations in check. But Martin and Mahtesian need a reality check, too. They are arguing way beyond the facts to suggest that the district had a "level playing field," that it "couldn't have been more primed for a Republican victory," and that "the outcome casts serious doubt on the idea that the Democratic House majority is in jeopardy."

Still, Republicans should be disappointed. I wrote recently that Republicans need to do well in Appalachian and Ohio River Valley districts to win in November. To do that, they must rebrand local Democrats as members of the Obama-Pelosi version of the Democratic Party. They didn't do a very good job of executing this strategy in PA-12, and they need to learn from their mistakes as they go on to compete in districts whose macro features are more favorable to them.

Yet that doesn't change the bottom line, which is this. The political demographics, the effect of the Senate primary, and the anti-Obama/Pelosi tone of the Democratic candidate were all uniquely favorable to the Democrats last night. Control of the House of Representatives is going to turn on districts that are much less Democratic than PA-12, on a day when the net effect of television advertising is not so heavily tilted toward the Democratic Party, and on the fate of incumbent Democrats who cannot so easily hide from their national leaders.

And let's not forget the view from 30,000 feet. Last night we saw two Democratic incumbent senators - Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter - mired in the mid-40s in their primaries. In PA-12, we find a candidate who positioned himself as an old time Democrat winning 53% of the vote in a union district where 62% of the voters were registered Democrats. How does this "contradict" "all the evidence" of a very good Republican year?

-Jay Cost

No, This Isn't an "Anti-Incumbent" Year

The White House is looking to push a storyline about the November elections - and for a job like that, there's nobody better suited than Obama water-carrier extraordinaire, Richard Wolffe:

Voters are lashing out at incumbents of both parties--which comes as a comfort to a White House braced for a Republican tidal wave this fall. And the president's political operatives aren't missing the chance to play up that message as they head into the biggest primaries of the midterm season thus far this Tuesday....

Inside the White House, Obama's advisers see a similar dynamic across the country.

"I think a lot of it is going to be hand-to-hand combat," said the senior Obama aide. "It's a weird environment. The real divide isn't between Republicans and Democrats. It's America and Washington. This is a continuation of the last election. But as the party in power, we are more vulnerable."

Dan Balz and Chris Cilizza equate the Specter/Obama debacle to Grayson/McConnell:

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) could be the next incumbent to fall, but by late Tuesday night, everyone from President Obama to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could feel the sting of voter anger that has shaped the election climate and that could produce a dramatic upheaval in Congress by November.

Ok. So, the idea is that the public mood is anti-incumbent in general, which means we should expect lots of "hand-to-hand" combat between Democrat and Republican candidates as they try to position themselves as being the most anti-Washington.

No. This is totally wrong.

It is a false equivalency being pushed because Arlen Specter is probably going to lose today. If that happens, Snarlin' Arlen will make the fourth high-profile pol that Barack Obama embraced in friendship who was later rebuked by the voters of a blue or purple state. Deeds, Corzine, Coakley, Specter. The White House doesn't want this "narrative" to get out - so they're pushing this alternative instead.

This isn't about dissatisfaction with the performance of the 44th President. Oh no. This is about demanding change in Washington - the very same change, by gum, that Barack Obama has been working so hard to bring about!

"Change that you can believe in" has gone from an over-worked campaign slogan to an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Vote for a Dem, you support the President's agenda for change. Vote for a GOPer, you support the President's agenda for change.

But how many Republican incumbents are in severe jeopardy of losing their seat in Congress to a Democratic challenger?

I count one: Joseph Cao of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, I count more than 20 Democrats in the House and Senate who are in severe jeopardy. Lower the threshold from "severe" to "serious" jeopardy, and I count maybe four Republicans and more than 50 Democrats.

The White House is absolutely, positively correct that there is a divide between America and Washington - but what they fail to appreciate (or, more likely, they appreciate it but want to fake-out the press) is that Washington, D.C. now belongs to Barack Obama.

Just as the student radicals of the 1960s became the tenured faculty of the 2000s, so the worm has turned in the District of Columbia. The gates have been crashed and the one-time insurgents are now comfortably ensconced as the establishment. And with the health care bill, Mr. Obama and his band of former rebels have enacted an extremely unpopular law that they cannot possibly blame on the old guard. George W. Bush may have "forced" Barack Obama's hand on the stimulus, but Dubya had nary a thing to do with the health care bill.

This is why President Obama was wrong to equate the election of Scott Brown to his own victory, and why he's wrong to push this story now. He is the ultimate insider now. That snappy "Hail to the Chief" he hears every time he walks into a room should be sign enough of this fact.

The White House likely knows this. They just don't want us talking about how Obama can't save a single high-profile candidate from a purple or blue state. They don't want us to realize that his coattails have been torn and frayed by the choices he's made in the last 17 months.

No doubt that Republican incumbents are being rebuked across the country by their primary constituencies. But it's all about who is closer to the establishment, which is currently commanded by a Democratic President whose job approval rating has been under 50% in the RCP average for five months. In this situation, challenger trumps incumbent, but Republican trumps Democrat. Republican challengers are farther than Republican incumbents from the establishment, so the latter better look out in the primaries. But in general elections, the dynamic will be very different. Republican challengers and incumbents will tar their Democratic opponents with a simple characterization: "A vote for my opponent is a vote for Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi's agenda." Democrats will have no such claim to make against Republicans.

This "anti-incumbent" meme is just a smokescreen designed to get the White House through some tough news cycles.

-Jay Cost

Obama the Polarizer

In January, 2007 Barack Obama declared his candidacy for the presidency with these words:

It's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.

Today, Gallup reports:

(Obama's) first-year ratings were the most polarized for a president in Gallup history, with an average 65-point gap between Republicans and Democrats. Obama's approval ratings have become slightly more polarized thus far in his second year in office, with an average 69-point gap between Democrats (83%) and Republicans (14%) since late January.

This is a big deal. The first quote is the principal reason Barack Obama ran for President. At a minimum, it was his first public argument for why he thought the country should elect him, as opposed to the dozen or so other candidates who would enter the race. It remained a critically important idea throughout his candidacy. Remember, the Obama campaign was an "audacious" act of line-jumping within the Democratic Party. His justification was that the country couldn't afford to keep playing the same old political games. The hook of his candidacy was: America, do you really want to do Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton?

Yet here we are, breaking records for polarization. How did that happen? Why has Obama failed to do what he promised?

I think there are two big reasons.

First, Obama's implicit claim throughout his candidacy was that public divisiveness was somehow a failure of leadership. This was mostly nonsense. This country has been divided over cultural issues since at least 1973 and Roe v. Wade. It has been divided on fiscal issues since Reagan cut taxes in 1981; this ended the hidden tax of bracket creep, but meant that legislators had to make hard choices between more spending and lower taxes. It has been divided on foreign policy issues since the Bush Administration's response to 9/11.

These are all real things. They are not rhetorical wrinkles that a Jon Favreau speech can iron out. Obama's choices have mostly been liberal (with the notable exceptions of dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan). His speechwriters have endeavored to present his choices as win-wins, but their words have failed to persuade because the President's choices are rarely in fact win-wins. They usually favor one worldview or set of interests over others. Favor one side enough times and the losers will start to see what's going on, "eloquent" speeches aside.

Second, insofar as leadership could bridge the many divides in this country, this President has never been in a good position to exercise it. He owes too much to others. You don't win a nomination battle like the Clinton-Obama smackdown without making a bunch of promises. Remember that neither Clinton nor Obama secured enough delegates through the primaries and caucuses; Obama needed the superdelegates, chief among them being Speaker Nancy Pelosi (easily the most powerful Democrat in the country prior to the President's inauguration). There is a long line of constituent groups in the Democratic Party who certainly needed assurances about what an Obama presidency would look like. So long as reelection remains to be secured, these groups at least have to be monitored if not placated. And so, in a time of great divisiveness, the people with the closest connection to the 44th President are consistently on one side of the aisle. The left side.

This feature of the Obama presidency came through most clearly on health care. Obama talked a good game about bipartisan compromise, but at no point did I get the impression that he was willing to ditch a guy like George Miller (a far left liberal in the House) to pick up a moderate Republican like Delaware's Mike Castle. Indeed, George Miller was one of the key authors of the health care bill in the House! There's no practical way you can get George Miller and Mike Castle to work together on a comprehensive overhaul of the American health care system. They are just too far apart ideologically. So, the question is: whose vote do you value more? Obama's answer has been crystal clear in his deeds, if not his words.

Of course, presidents have to tend to their party coalitions. That's the way its been since the 1790s; John Adams did a lousy job of dealing with the arch-Federalists, and Alexander Hamilton eventually stabbed him in the back. Ever since then, the role of the President as manager of his party has been pretty straightforward. It's hard to begrudge Obama for trying to manage his party. What's more, politicians hate to assign losers, so they try to convince us that everybody's a winner. It's predictable that Obama would try his hand at this as well. Sure, he promised during the campaign that he'd talk clearly about the hard choices - but anybody who believed that, at least after he ditched public financing of his campaign for nakedly political purposes, was simply looking for a reason to vote for him.

But why won't he simply own his polarizing presidency? He made the choices he has made, and the consequences have been predictable, so he should own them. But no. As far as he's concerned, he is the bipartisan bridge builder he promised to be. It's those damned lying liars on the other side who have distorted his record!

As Matt Welch noted over at Reason, he's "working the refs."

[Obama's] message...is clear, clever, and wrong. The boom in opinionated, interconnected media is a challenge to our very democracy (it isn't). News needs to be hermetically sealed from opinion (it doesn't). The primary purpose of media consumption should be empowerment (if there was a primary purpose for media consumption, I sure as hell wouldn't trust a president to identify it). And the most dangerous purveyor of untruths is the 24/7 echo chamber...

While hypocritical (given the president's own slippery relationship with the truth) this critique is strategically clever. For those still inclined to believe it, the message reinforces Obama's fading image as a truth-telling, above-it-all academic (see the Michigan speech in particular for a bunch of we need to get beyond the tired debate about big-vs.-small-government claptrap). And for the straight-journalism types this is a soothing tongue-bath from the Sensible Centrist in Chief that reinforces their own self-pity/importance and gives them even more motivation to go after the real lying liars: The ones who noisily and hyperbolically oppose the policies of the most powerful man on earth.

I think this is dead on, and it fits into the point I'm making here. The President could acknowledge that his policies are truly divisive. He could claim that while he respects the objections of the opposition, he believes that in the long run his way of thinking will be vindicated. That would be the grown-up thing to do. That would be real leadership. Instead, he implies that if only we got rid of the right wing talk machine, the public would see that every last one of his policies has been a win-win.

Enough is enough, Mr. President. You're a polarizing leader in a polarized age. Own it.

-Jay Cost

Thunder on the Mountain

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be

Mean old twister bearing down on me

All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town

Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down
-Bob Dylan

The American people have only a limited role in the United States government. They must choose representatives to govern for them, rather than govern directly. They have just two political parties from which to choose. And if a representative from one district votes for a bill that affects another, the people in the other district cannot do a thing about it.

Oftentimes, one can't help but wonder if the practical power of the people is even slighter. American elections too often have low turnout. They are too frequently determined by the campaign for dollars, as candidates raise money to subsidize the unctuous propaganda that fills the airwaves prior to Election Day. Elections often do a poor job of booting the bad characters from government. The whole ugly process of electoral politics rarely seems to attract the best of the citizenry. A visit to Washington, D.C. can prompt the cynical question, "Who runs this place? Because it sure as hell doesn't seem like it's the people..."

And yet for all this, the people do indeed rule. While their power is limited, it is nevertheless unconditional where it exists. Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi need the assent of the people of the United States to govern this country. But the people don't need any such thing. In the limited sphere where they rule, they are supreme.

This is easy to forget because it is rare to see the people actually wield their power in its full force. Between 1954 and 1994, the Democrats controlled the House, whether they deserved to or not. The Republicans controlled it from 1994 to 2006, again regardless of merit. The Senate has usually been just as static. Turnover in the presidency has also been fairly uneventful. Only once in the last century have the people ejected from the White House a party it had installed just four years prior (that dubious distinction goes to Jimmy Carter and the Democrats, who were promoted to the White House in 1976 then quickly demoted in 1980).

This kind of stability can give the impression that the people do not rule. We so rarely see the full force of their power that it is easy to think that the real bossess are the decades-long denizens of the prestige committees, the high-powered lobbyists, the king-makers in both party establishments, or the plugged-in Beltway journalists. We see them all the time, preening about their power and influence. They seem like they're really in charge.

But they're not. D.C. might shine brilliantly to the eyes of some, but it is still just reflected light. For all their posturing, the establishment still works at the pleasure of the people. It just so happens that the people usually choose to renew their tenure.

Yet this year, it looks like the people are set to deliver a historic rebuke to the establishment. The portents of the coming reprimand are all around us. Consider:

-Arlen Specter was effectively booted from the Republican Party nearly a year before the primary election. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the Republican electorate in Pennsylvania had become too conservative. This tendentious interpretation has been exploded by the fact that he's about to be ejected from the Democratic side, too.

-Scott Brown came out of nowhere to defeat Martha Coakley in the election to replace Senator Ted Kennedy.

-Former Senator Dan Coats couldn't even get 40% of the vote in the Indiana primary. Most of the vote was split between Marlin Stutzman and John Hostettler, who combined had raised just $315k by April 14.

-In Indiana's 9th Congressional District, frequent candidate, former representative and party favorite Mike Sodrel finished in third place. In Indiana's 5th District, Republican incumbent Dan Burton scored just 30% of the primary vote.

-Charlie Crist has been forced to exit the Republican primary in Florida because of Marco Rubio's surge. He is currently leading in opinion polls, but the lead is completely illusory. Right now, he's winning over 40% of the Democratic vote (more than the presumptive Democratic nominee, Kendrick Meeks) as well as nearly 25% of the African-American vote. Those numbers are unsustainable.

-Three-term Senator Bob Bennett has been booted from his seat by the Republican Party of Utah.

This is the thunder on the mountain, the early warning that something bad is about to blow through the District of Columbia. I don't think there's anything anybody there can do about it. The people have a limited role in this government - but where the people do possess power, they are like a force of nature. They cannot be stopped.

That's bad news for the establishment this year. They're going to wake up on the morning of November 3rd and be reminded of who is actually in charge of this country.

Democrats will be hit much, much harder than Republicans. Even so, it would be a huge mistake to interpret the coming rebuke through a strictly ideological or partisan lens. Yet predictably, that's what many will do. Republicans will see this as a historic rejection of Barack Obama's liberalism, just as they saw the 1994 revolution as a censure of Bill Clinton, and just as Democrats saw 2006 and 2008 as admonishments of George W. Bush's foreign policy. These interpretations are only half right. When the people are angry at the way the government is being managed, and they are casting about for change, their only option is the minority party. The partisans of the minority are quick to interpret this as their holy invitation to the promised land, but that's not what it really is about. They were only given the promotion because the people had no other choice.

The entire political class needs to understand that the coming events transcend ideology and partisanship. The electoral wave of 2010 will have been preceded by the waves of 2006 and 2008. That will make three electoral waves in a row, affecting both parties and conservative and liberal politicians alike. The American people are sending the establishment a message: we're angry at the way you are running our government; fix it or you'll be next to go.

-Jay Cost

Keep an Eye on Joe Sestak

In two weeks, Pennsylvania voters will go to the polls for the 2010 primary election. Most analysts (myself included) have focused on the special election being held that day in PA-12, but it is worth keeping an eye on the battle for the Pennsylvania Senate on the Democratic side. There, Congressman Joe Sestak (PA-7) is looking to defeat Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, who is seeking his sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

This race has escaped attention in large part because Arlen Specter has had a huge lead in the polls. But that lead has been shrinking recently. A Rasmussen Reports poll taken early last month showed Specter ahead by just two points, down from a 19-point lead at the beginning of the year. A Susquehanna poll found Specter with just 42% of the vote, not a great place to be for an incumbent who has held a statewide office for 30 years. Most recently, the Allentown Morning Call tracking poll shows a tight race, 48-42.

Specter should be nervous about those numbers. His decision to leave the GOP largely escaped strict scrutiny in the mainstream media because he framed it as a principled response to the narrowing, shrinking Republican Party - a meme that journalists and politicos were making good use of a year ago. But this is bunk. Arlen Specter has never been a terribly popular politician in Pennsylvania. In his five previous electoral victories, he has only gotten more than 60% of the vote once (in 1998). Plus, his last contest, in 2004, saw him pulling in just 53% of the vote. Compare that to Republicans in other purple to blue states and it doesn't look all that good. In 2004 George Voinovich of Ohio won 64%; Chuck Grassley of Iowa won 70%; and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire won 66%. Susan Collins of Maine won 61% in 2008, a bad year for Republicans. Olympia Snowe of Maine won 74% in 2006, another bad year for the GOP.

Specter actually lost Democrats and Independents in 2004, according to the exit poll. What saved him were those supposedly intolerant Republicans, who went 84-8 for Specter in the general election. Therein points to the core challenge facing Arlen Specter, and why we can't write off Joe Sestak. Specter needs Democrats who have never voted for him to support him for the first time in two weeks.

There are two geographical dynamics that I would keep a careful eye on. First, watch metro Philadelphia. Now, obviously it's always important to watch metro Philly because it has such a large share of the statewide vote. But what is especially interesting about this contest is that both Sestak and Specter hail from metro Philly. My sense is that Specter will win the old Democratic constituencies - like labor unions and African Americans in the city - but Sestak should do well with newer constituencies - like upscale liberals in the suburbs whose parents were Republican. Specter will need a big lead coming out of this area to mitigate losses in other parts of the state.

It's also important to watch Western Pennsylvania, which time and again has almost been Specter's Waterloo. Rasmussen shows Sestak winning "conservative" Democrats by more than 20 points. Those voters are probably in the West. Specter got blown out in the West in the 2004 GOP primary, and he under-performed in the general election as well. Specter has never been terribly popular there, and at the time of his departure from the GOP, I speculated that his graceless exit from the Republican Party might have something to do with the fact that the GOP has moved West in recent decades.

Finally, we can't forget the intangibles in a year like this. In many respects, Arlen Specter has come to represent what voters find so noxious about politics these days. He's a careerist politician who has been out for his own interests while the country has drifted sideways. Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review summarized Specter's candidacy in this way:

Specter's never understood that he's his own worst enemy.

It isn't that he was a Republican who often voted with Democrats, or that he switched from Democrat to Republican to Democrat. It's that he is untrustworthy.

Politicians can survive the thin line between love and hate. But lose voters' trust and they lose votes.

Indeed. Pennsylvania Republicans stopped trusting him a long time ago, and if general election polls are to believed, Independents have done the same. That just leaves Pennsylvania Democrats - who historically have never really trusted him. That's why I think this race will be tight. Sestak has a good amount of money - $5.3 million cash on hand as of March 30 - and a simple, compelling message to Pennsylvania Democrats: you've never believed that Arlen Specter represents your interests in Washington, why start now?

-Jay Cost