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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> 2010 Congressional Election - The Senate

Health Care Reform Has Endangered the Democratic Majority

This Politico piece by Jim VandeHei, Alex Isenstadt, and Mike Allen got a lot of play last week:

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover -- or that anything resembling the White House's promise of a "recovery summer" is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe -- such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 -- are in real trouble.

There is no mention of health care reform in this piece. The economy is referenced several times. So is the President's inability to control the narrative. Even the Ground Zero Mosque is mentioned as a reason why the House is now in jeopardy. But not health care.

It has become conventional wisdom that the decline of the Democrats has mostly to do with the economy and little - if anything - to do with health care. This is Jonathan Alter from Saturday:

Health-care reform was seen by many cable chatterers as shaping the outcome of the November midterm elections but almost certainly won't. Nor will the flap over the planned mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero. To make sure, Obama defended the constitutional principle at stake, but backed off on the specific siting. Why get tied down by another hot-button distraction, especially one that keeps the Muslim story alive in ways that help no one but the media? The collapse of the Greek economy, by contrast, is an example of something real, not hyped by cable news, whose reverberations first spoiled Obama's PR plan for a "Recovery Summer" and now could sink the Democrats in the midterms.

So, Greek economy, yes. Health care...no?

This meme is wrong. The Democrats' control of the House did not become tenuous recently. At best, some of the more immediate warning signs - e.g. individual incumbents like Betty Sutton now appear to be in jeopardy - have manifested themselves recently. But there has been a real danger of losing the House for some time, a danger that predates "Recovery Summer" and goes back to the health care debate.

First of all, the fact that the health care bill is no longer the topic du jore does not mean it is no longer an issue. The real questions are whether the health care bill moved voters away from the Democrats, and whether those voters have since moved back now that the debate is over. The answers are yes - the debate moved voters away from the Democrats; and no - the voters have not come back.

Here is the 2009-2010 track of the RCP generic ballot average:

Generic Ballot.jpg

This metric historically has a Democratic tilt, yet it showed the two parties at parity a year ago. That was, you will recall, after Democratic incumbents were excoriated at town hall meetings all summer. Only about 40% of people supported the bill at that point. With the President's late summer speech to Congress, the Democratic generic ballot numbers ticked up, but the GOP pulled back to within even of the Democrats by mid-November, when the House was debating the bill.

All of this happened during the Third and Fourth Quarters of 2009, when GDP finally turned positive then jumped up by 5.0%.

It is very hard to win the House of Representatives when you lose the House popular vote. And the polls have suggested for a year that Democrats were in danger of doing just that.

It is also very hard to win the House of Representatives when Independents bolt to the other side en masse. Republicans and Democrats split Independents in the 2004 House elections. In 2006 they went for the Democrats by 18 points. They went for the Democrats by 8 points in 2008.

In Gallup's most recent polling, President Obama won the approval of just 40% of Independent adults. That's deep in the danger zone, and the President has been in trouble with Independents for some time. Independent adults have given him less than 50% approval in the Gallup poll since November, 2009. Again, that's when the economy was growing and the health care debate was on the front page. And that is among all adults. Among likely voters, Rasmussen found around that time that 60% of Independents disapproved of the President's performance, with 45% strongly disapproving.

We can also point to the 2009 off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, which occurred during the health care debate. Democrats suffered massive defections among Independent voters, bringing Republicans to victory in both states. Something similar happened in the Massachusetts Senate election. Republicans do not win New England Senate seats by bringing the conservative base out to the polls! Scott Brown is a United States Senator today because Independents in the Bay State were unhappy with the course the national government had been taking.

Partisans on both sides tell themselves stories about why they're up, why they're down, and why the other side is where it is. These stories usually contain at least a grain of truth, but they also help encourage ideologues in the face of an impending rejection by the electorate. Democrats ignored the political problem of health care in the fall and winter - arguing that Martha Coakley and Creigh Deeds were bad candidates, that voters had been turned off by the health care bill because of the process, and that they would come around once the many benefits kicked in. Now, they're pointing to the economy as the only significant reason why the party is in trouble.

It would be difficult for any strong partisan to admit that such an accomplishment was so deeply unpopular. Yet the polling is pretty unequivocal on the relationship between the Democrats' fortunes and the health care bill. It was during the health care debate that the essential building block of the Democratic majority - Independent voters - began to crumble. It was evident in the generic ballot. It was evident in the President's job approval numbers. It was evident in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Reconstructing the Democrats' meme, we can fairly say that the economy is a huge problem for the party. Of this, there can be no doubt. We can also say that the stalled recovery denied the Democrats a chance to win back the voters they lost over health care. But the process and passage of health care reform were crucial elements in the story. That's when the party started losing the voters it needs to retain control of the government.

-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

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

Charlie Crist's Foolish Move

What the hell is Charlie Crist doing?

This is insane. Two huge problems.

One, Independents don't win elections to the US Senate in three-way contests. Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman are in office because one party or the other implicitly backed them. By my count, the last candidate to win election to the Senate as an Independent (other than Sanders and Lieberman) was Harry Byrd of Virginia. He won in 1976 because the Republicans did not run a candidate. This is not coincidental; true third party candidacies almost never work:

-When it comes to Congress, there's no such thing as an "Independent." Senators and Representatives inevitably caucus with one side or the other because the party leaders dispense committee assignments. This means that Independents are only really independent when they're campaigning, not legislating.

-Voters vote their partisanship, and most voters are partisan. The 2008 exit poll found that the Florida electorate was 37% Democrat, 34% Republican, and 29% Independent. I'd note that the exit polls don't ask Independents how they lean. Gallup asks that question, and that's why they currently find that only 12% of Americans are "pure" Independents.

-Voters are strategic. Remember the New Jersey governor's race? Independent Christopher Daggett was polling at 10%, but only got 5.8% on Election Day. There's a reason for that. American elections are winner take all, which makes it very difficult for third parties to thrive. Once voters catch wind that a vote for a third party candidate is a waste, they'll bail on that candidate. This suggests that Crist is going to have to "defeat" either Marco Rubio or Kendrick Meek prior to Election Day. Now, how do you suppose he's going to do that? He hasn't been able to defeat Rubio yet. That means he will have to nullify Meek. I'm skeptical he'll be able to do that. As an African American, Meek can expect strong support from the roughly 14% of the electorate that is black. That's one big problem. Another big problem is that Crist will first have to get the Democratic Party establishment to get behind him, and the White House is refusing to take his calls. With good reason. They're banking that Crist will siphon off just enough votes from Rubio to elect Meek. And anyway, with Roland Burris leaving the upper chamber next year, there might not be a single African American Senator in the 112th Congress. Can the Democratic establishment really turn its back on Meek - for Charlie Crist of all people? No way!

-Partisanship is important on Election Day. A party label carries with it a wealth of information that helps poorly-informed voters select the correct candidate. Crist has shed his Republican label, so now nobody knows what he will do in the Senate. How is that going to help inform voters about him? If Crist was more personable, he could run by saying, "Trust me to do what's right!" But he doesn't have that kind of personal appeal.

Second, it would be hard to come up with a strategy that goes against the zeitgeist as much as Crist's plan to run as an Independent. Congressional job approval is getting so low that only members of Congress and their staff approve of the job the legislature is doing. And why? Ask people you know in life and they'll complain about politicians who are only out for themselves, who aren't looking out for the interests of the people. And now here comes good old Charlie Crist, who just a few weeks ago swore off an Independent run. This is a dishonest and nakedly self-interested move, and voters are fed up with this kind of behavior. The only compelling motivation that Charlie Crist has to run as an Independent is so that Charlie Crist can stay in elective office. That is not good enough in a year like 2010. Crist should take a lesson from Arlen Specter, a 30-year veteran of Pennsylvania statewide politics who pulled a similar stunt. He isn't polling above 43% in the RCP average. That's the kind of year this is.

I know why Crist is doing this. He's not on the ballot for governor this year, and he doesn't want to lose his seat at the table. Yet this is not going to work. And it will end his political career for good. The alternative would be to bow out gracefully, heartily endorse Marco Rubio, campaign like the dickens for him in the fall, and wait for the next opening in Florida politics. Instead, he is about to piss off every Republican in the country, and he's not going to win over the affections of the Democrats, who clearly sense an opportunity to get one of their own into the seat.

His political career will be over in just a few short months. What a fool.

-Jay Cost

The Republican Message Writes Itself

The talk among Republicans is that their November message should focus on repealing the new health care bill - or some version of repeal and replace. Meanwhile, other analysts have suggested that Republicans risk over-reaching and appearing too aggressive.

I think this debate is misframed. The Republican message is going to be put together by campaign strategists looking to maximize the number of votes won by their candidates. While there is something to be said for emphasizing repeal, I expect the Republican argument to focus on more visceral, immediate points. Here are the five big arguments we should expect the GOP to emphasize.


1. The Economy. This is the number one issue in every poll. If the labor market continues to be weak, expect Republican candidates to use that to great effect. They'll communicate the information contained in this chart :


Obviously, they won't use this chart - but it's not hard to envision how some GOP ad man will translate the information in this chart into an effective advertisement.

Remember, it's not just that the unemployment rate is elevated. It's that the Obama Administration - and by extension congressional Democrats - over-promised on what the stimulus package would do for it.

2. Medicare. Call it Bob Dole's revenge. The 104th Congress tried to trim the sails of Medicare to preserve its long-run sustainability, and they were hammered by the Democrats for their efforts. This time, Republicans will return the favor - arguing against the hundreds of billions of cuts in Medicare that ObamaCare imposes to fund a new entitlement. Republican candidates will be sure to mention points like this, from CBO:

Under the legislation, CBO expects that Medicare spending would increase significantly more slowly during the next two decades than it has increased during the past decades (per beneficiary, after adjusting for inflation). It is unclear whether such a reduction in the growth rate of spending could be achieved, and if so, whether it would be accomplished through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or through reductions in access to care or the quality of care.

What effect will this have? Consider that in the 2008 presidential election in Virginia, senior citizens made up 11% of the electorate and went for John McCain, 53-46. In the 2009 gubernatorial election, they made up 18% of the electorate and gave Bob McDonnell 60% of the vote.

Gallup finds that seniors right now give Barack Obama just 40% job approval. That's bad news for Democrats.

3. The Deficit. If anybody doubts whether deficits can influence votes, look no further than the case of H. Ross Perot. He made fiscal sustainability a chief plank in his 1992 presidential campaign, and he pulled in a whopping 19% of the vote. That included 30% of the Independent vote.

The deficit is one of those issues that everybody understands. Everybody has to keep some kind of budget, and everybody knows that they can't get away with spending more than twice what they take in. The White House can call this a "new era of responsibility," but it's hard to square the claim with the numbers.

4. Taxes and spending. Combine the billions of new taxes in the health care bill with the $1 trillion from letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the $940 billion price tag of ObamaCare, and the $789 billion stimulus - and you have a simple GOP message: this is the biggest tax and spend government in American history.

Plus, expect Republicans to warn that the unsustainability of the deficit plus Obama's social welfare ambitions can mean only one thing: massive new taxes on the middle class. We could see ads using this clip:

5. Congress. This is one of the most unpopular Congresses in recent history, and Republicans will try to anchor incumbent Democrats to Nancy Pelosi, who is quite unpopular (the latest AP poll had her unfavorables at 51%).

We're going to see a lot of ads like this:

Democratic members already expect this coming. Witness, for instance, the number of members who are defecting on minor procedural matters. For instance, seventeen brave House Democrats voted with the Republicans on the highly controversial resolution yesterday to adjourn the House of Representatives! That includes 10 Democrats who just voted for ObamaCare but who were courageous enough to defy the Speaker's demand to send members home for Easter vacation: Chris Carney, Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth, Jim Himes, Suzanne Kosmas, Harry Mitchell, Scott Murphy, Tom Perriello, Mark Schauer, and Joe Sestak.

Kidding aside, there is no other reason for such a vote than to lower the percentage of agreement with Speaker Pelosi.


These are the tried-and-true issues for Republicans to hit: jobs, Medicare, the deficit, taxes and spending, and Congress. There will be other messages out there, but individually each of these would be very potent. Running on them all in a single election is something else entirely. If the Republicans pick up lots of seats in November, some Republican campaign "guru" will come out of the woodwork to claim credit - but c'mon, the ads write themselves.

The GOP need not and will not focus primarily on the idea of "repeal," which is far too vague. That's not to say that the party shouldn't promise repeal. It's just to say that its rhetorical emphases should - and will - focus on the messages that have been proven over the years to be effective.

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-Jay Cost

Obama's Worst Poll Number

Gallup's breakdown of Obama's job approval by age was illuminating.


First off, note Obama's drop-off among young people. Young people were supposed to be a critical component of the new Democratic majority. Granted their approval is still slightly higher than the other groups, but it has far and away been the most volatile, dropping more than any other. This should not come as a huge surprise. Baby Boomers were partial to McGovern in 1972, but swung around to Reagan in the 80s. Young people's political dispositions are still being formed.

Yet, Obama's worst poll number here is actually his share among seniors. I'm guessing it relates to the health care debate. The White House should be very concerned, and for one simple reason: seniors vote.

Here are some empirics on that claim. I looked at states that featured hotly contested midterm Senate elections in 2006. I counted ten: Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia. For each of these, I pulled out the share of the electorate that was 65 and over for President in 2008, Senate in 2006, and President in 2004.


First off, there was not a noticeable drop-off among senior voters from 2004 to 2008. Only Ohio shows a significant change, and it has an increase. About half have a slight increase and half have a slight decrease. That's consistent with national polls, which have seniors contributing 16% of the total electorate in 2004 and 2008.

Second, notice 2006. In seven of the ten states, seniors accounted for a larger share of the electorate during the midterm. In several of them, the differences were substantial. At least in the hotly contested Senate elections, the 2006 electorate was noticeably older. This corresponds with national data as well. The national House exit poll in 2006 found 19% of the electorate was 65 or older, compared to 16% in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

One reason for this might be that there is a lot of stimulation to vote in a presidential election - especially the last two matchups, which were hotly contested - but that stimulation drops off for the midterms. Thus, you're left with an electorate voting more out of habit, rather than being drawn to participate by the excitement of the spectacle. That could give seniors an advantage.

If Obama's numbers with seniors stay in the cellar, this could mean midterm problems next year for the Democrats. The silver lining here for the White House is that most of the drop-off occurred recently, which suggests that Obama might be able to win at least some of these people back. If he can improve his overall standing on the health care issue, he'll probably pick up with seniors.

-Jay Cost

Why Can't Obama Stop "Renegade" Democrats?

That question informs this recent story in Politico, which opens:

He's riding high in the polls among his fellow Democrats, but President Barack Obama's political sway within his own party is about to be tested.

Two House Democrats, Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Carolyn Maloney of New York, are poised to defy the unambiguous wishes of Obama and challenge incumbent senators of their own party.

Both indicated to POLITICO that they were likely to run -- and would do so regardless of what Obama said...

Asked directly if a plea from Obama would make any difference, Sestak shook his head and said: "No."...

The two races illustrate the risks for Obama, or any president, in trying to play local kingmaker -- namely, the very real possibility that no matter how popular he is, he may not be able bend every contest to his wishes and that by trying to do so, he risks being defied by his own party.

So, let's answer that title question.

At first blush, it seems pretty tricky. The President's popularity is still 60+. Democrats in Congress follow his lead. And so on. He should be able to stop them, right?

That view depends, I think, on an erroneous understanding of the contemporary American political party. If we were to sketch it, it might look like this:

CW Party.jpg

I've labeled this the "CW" Party because I think this is the implicit view contained in the conventional wisdom. It's seen as a straightforward hierarchy, running from the President and his national committee at the top, down to the local parties and candidates. By this schema, Obama should be able to stop Sestak and Maloney, as he sits above them in the hierarchy.

The American political party does not look like this today. And, for that matter, it's never looked like this.

At one point, the party resembled what political scientists have called a "truncated pyramid," something like this:

Truncated Pyramid Party.jpg

The old party system was dominated by the state parties - if we were to label it in time, we might say that this structure lasted from roughly 1828 to 1972. There was nobody above the state parties, nobody to boss them around. The national party committees merely hosted the national conventions, where the state parties came to barter and bargain about who would be the next presidential nominee. Indeed, in elections past (particularly before and after the Civil War), many incumbent presidents were not even given re-nomination from the parties!

This old system was not replaced with the "CW Party" depicted above. Instead, the current thinking on the "new" political parties looks something like this:

New American Party.jpg

Joseph Schlesinger, a political scientist from Michigan State, was the first to come up with this idea - and it's since been adopted as the theoretical foundation of the contemporary party, at least in the electoral campaign. When we start talking about the role of the party in Congress, we move away from this and toward the idea that the contemporary party is like a legislative cartel. So, we're limiting ourselves here to talk about the party in elections.

What this depicts is a series of candidate loci. In other words, the party exists around individual campaigns for office. So, within each circle would be the candidate, his donors, strategists, die-hard followers, and so on. Each candidate is in charge of his own locus - implying that, at its core, the contemporary American political party is disconnected. The lines connecting some loci to others indicate lines of coordination - the ways in which candidates of the same party work together to obtain victory. This might be the sharing of dollars or polling information, coordinating on strategy, and so on. There are lines connecting some loci but not others because coordination is not handed down from on high. Instead, coordination depends on each candidate's evaluation of his/her own interests, and how it would be useful to interact with other candidates. These days, the electoral context is such that coordination tends to be very high - and it is facilitated by the national parties (the national committees and the congressional campaign committees). However, that does not alter the fundamental feature that this picture captures: individual candidates stand largely on their own.

This helps answer the title question. The Presidency is a very powerful office - and this President, with his popularity being as great as it is, is a very powerful one. However, he is still constrained by the existing political system, which on the electoral level looks like those disconnected loci. It really does not matter how high his job approval goes, candidates still rise and fall on their own because that's the way the system is set up. The President could possibly have some sway at the margins by suggesting to other, loyal candidates that they not coordinate with the renegades, and that they instead coordinate with the loyalists. Indeed, he'll probably do this. However, that is not necessarily enough to stop the renegades. If they can can acquire sufficient resources, absent that coordination, they can still mount potent challenges.

My sense is that both Sestak and Maloney will be able to do that. They have access to sufficient dollars to build a substantial campaign organization, and they both have compelling arguments to make against the incumbents. In all likelihood, the President can help make sure that Specter and Gillibrand are sufficiently financed - but they probably would have been, anyway.

On this page, I often refer to our electoral system being "candidate centered." The above picture is a graphical depiction of my thinking on the matter, and the President's inability to stop Sestak and Maloney is a great example of the implication of the contemporary system.

-Jay Cost

First Thoughts on Specter v. Sestak

Joe Sestak is going to challenge Arlen Specter next year in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary. Here are my opening thoughts on the race.

(1) Kyle has the word on an early Quinnipiac poll that has Specter up 50-21. I would not put much stock into this. Sestak is just in his second term in the House, which means he is virtually unknown in the state. He probably is not even terribly well known in his own district. The lack of familiarity can explain this deficit - and familiarity is something that can be purchased with television advertising.

(2) What Sestak is going to need is money. And then more money. And then some more after that. In fact, my sense is that a strategic pol like Sestak would only get into the race if he thought he could raise the needed cash. Money is how Sestak can make up for the familiarity that Specter has in the state. Toomey raised $4.5 million for his challenge in 2004. Sestak is going to have to do better. He surely will, already having about $3.3 million on hand as of April 1st.

(3) This is bad news for Specter. His departure from the GOP came at about the time that the media was talking about how small and narrow the party is. I don't think this was coincidental - I think it was timed to give Specter cover: the media would put the spotlight on the GOP rather than him. If they had looked closely at him, I think they would have found that he is a very weak candidate. Lots of moderates win Republican primaries in plenty of states. That Specter would surely fail to do this says more about Specter than the PA GOP. And that Quinnipiac poll shows Specter under 50% in a head-to-head against Toomey. Specter is weak; Sestak can win.

(4) We should not assume that the Democratic Party is any more natural a home for Specter than the Republican Party was. I'd suggest that it isn't. In fact, Specter is going to need to win the support of voters who have consistently voted against him for 30 years, whereas Pennsylvania Republicans would at least back him in the general. Switching parties to save one's skin in a primary battle is just not done - and it is an inferential jump of enormous proportions to conclude that Pennsylvania Democrats will back Specter simply because he has switched the "R" to a "D." The fact that Specter is one of (if not the) first to try this maneuver suggests just how tricky it will be. It's also a testimony to just how much water he had drained out of the pool with the Republican electorate.

(5) Suppose Sestak raises the cash. What's his angle? I think Specter has provided him with a great valence issue - i.e. one that divides the electorate by 90-10 or even 99-1 rather than 50-50 or 60-40. That is: "Why shouldn't Pennsylvania Democrats demand a real Democrat?" If the considerations in point (4) are indeed on target, this would be a great way for Sestak to exploit the opening.

(6) This is good news for Toomey. If Specter loses the primary, the race becomes an open seat, which improves his chances. If Specter wins, but Sestak puts up a spirited fight, the negativity of the final weeks should knock Specter down a peg. Plus, Specter would have had to spend a good deal of his cash.

(7) If it turns out that Sestak defeats - or nearly defeats - Specter in the Democratic primary next year, I do not expect us to hear the line we heard about the PA GOP. We won't hear how the PA Democratic party is too narrow or ideological to support a sensible moderate, etc. etc. etc. For the Beltway punditocracy, all analysis must flow from the broader meme. No exceptions, which is why Specter's departure was interpreted in reference to the "GOP is shrinking, narrow, and gross" narrative. The meme on Pennsylvania is that it is trending blue (inaccurate; it hasn't budged in 50+ years), so a Sestak victory will be interpreted as a sign that Pennsylvania just wants a more liberal Democrat. When you think about this, it makes little sense: how can the GOP reject Specter because of decline and the Democrats reject him because of expansion? But that's how the kind of conclusion you draw when you're afflicted with the Swamp Fever.

-Jay Cost

On Specter and Pennsylvania Republicans

As I have written before, the punditocracy's preferred explanation for Specter's decision to jump is that the Pennsylvania GOP is now such a small, conservative rump that it will not tolerate a moderate such as he. I think that is a bunch of bull - and a recent poll from Public Opinion Strategies backs me up (to an extent).

Their poll of likely Republican voters found Tom Ridge trouncing Pat Toomey, 60% to 23%. It also found that the former Republican governor has an approval rating among Republicans of 80%, compared to Arlen Specter's approval of just 30%.

It's early of course, but the results are still relevant. As I noted Tuesday, Tom Ridge is a moderate Republican. He's not quite as close to the middle as Specter, but he was one of the more moderate members of the Republican caucus when he served. So, why is it that these supposedly intolerant conservatives approve so highly of Ridge? Additionally, though it is still early, it's notable that the moderate Ridge is trouncing the conservative Toomey. And remember: the early numbers were enough to cause Specter to switch.

I'd suggest that the ideological intolerance - or whatever - of the Pennsylvania GOP cannot account for this. Instead, I think this is anti-Specter sentiment. Specter is not particularly well liked, especially among Pennsylvania Republicans outside metro Philadelphia. Is this so difficult to believe? After all, this is the guy who said Jack Kemp would still be alive if Congress had spent more money on cancer research. Nothing.But.Class.

Here's another data point that offers pushback on this meme. Again, the story goes that the hardcore conservatives are the ones who won't tolerate Specter. Ok. Let's test this. The most conservative part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is the center of the state - the counties where there is nothing but forests and mountains as far as the eye can see. If Specter's problem is really ideological, we should have expected him to do the worst in those areas when he ran against Toomey in 2004.

But he didn't. The following map is a color coded depiction of the 2004 primary. I've put Specter counties in blue and Toomey counties in red. Deeper shading indicates a wider margin of victory.

Specter v. Toomey 2004.gif

As you can see, Specter held his own in the center of the state. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but I'd bet the spicy chicken sandwich I'm eating that he won PA-5 and PA-9, the two most conservative districts in the state. These places are mostly rural, uniformly white, low income, historically Republican - the exact kinds of places media pundits in Washington say are ruining the GOP. Yet they went for Specter in 2004.

As I indicated last week, Specter's problem was his near-ruinous results in metropolitan Pittsburgh, losing every county in the area. He lost heavily Republican Butler county by about 20 points. Butler County is not part of what the pundits would identify as the GOP's trouble. It's dominated by Cranberry Township, a far north suburb of Pittsburgh. The county as a whole grew by about 15% in the 1990s. In the last 10 years, growth has slowed to about 6%. Cranberry is dominated by younger families looking to buy a home without Allegheny County's real estate taxes weighing them down. There has been a big boom in development in the last 25 years, which means plenty of Starbucks around Cranberry, though it still voted for Toomey in 2004. For good measure, the senior Pennsylvania senator also lost York and Lancaster counties - which, because they sit between Philly and Baltimore, are much larger exurban communities. So, you also would have seen a lot of people there who picked up their Starbucks Espresso Double Shots on the way to vote against Snarlin' Arlen a few years back.

Bottom line: Specter's problem in 2004 was not conservatives, especially the "clingy" and "bitter" small town GOPers that the media is pegging as the bane of his existence. As you can see, the most conservative counties in the state actually went for Specter. His problem was the west, which I am guessing is powering Ridge's huge margin over Toomey in that Strategic Vision poll.

If the west prefers Toomey over Specter, but Ridge over Toomey - it can't be ideology driving the results.

Update: Specter can breath a little easier, as Ridge has now said he's not running.

-Jay Cost

Ridge Could Be Trouble for Specter

Quinnipiac released a poll yesterday showing Tom Ridge running just a few points behind Arlen Specter in a hypothetical match-up. Importantly, the results also showed Specter below 50%. Today, Chris Cillizza reports that Ridge is interested in running (h/t Tom Bevan):

Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge (R) is seriously considering a 2010 bid for the Senate seat held by Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter and will make his decision in the next two weeks, according to several sources familiar with his thinking.

Ridge is perhaps the state's most decorated Republican, having held a House seat for more than a decade, spent eight years as governor and served as the first secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush. He was also mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008.

Don't expect Toomey to back down if Ridge joins the fray. Of course, Ridge is no stranger to contested primaries. In 1994 - he defeated Attorney General Ernie Preate and soon-to-be Attorney General Mike Fisher in the Pennsylvania primary. Ridge is an interesting combination of political qualities. He's Catholic, which is a big asset in Pennsylvania politics. White Catholics made up 20% of the nationwide electorate in 2008, but 30% in Pennsylvania. Unsurprisingly then, Pennsylvania is one of the more pro-life blue states in the country. Yet Ridge is actually pro-choice, and while in Congress he racked up a fairly moderate ideological score of 0.189, compared to Toomey's 0.694 and Specter's 0.06 (where 1.0 is a perfectly conservative record).

Ridge would be a highly formidable general election candidate. Last week, I argued that Specter's electoral problem is not so much his moderation, but his lack of support from Western Pennsylvania. Ridge - whose old congressional district (PA 03) stretches from the far north exurbs of Pittsburgh up along the PA-OH border to Erie - could exploit this. When Ridge ran in the 1994 general, he performed poorest in the southwest, but this was due in part to the fact that his general election opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel, is from Johnstown (John Murtha's hometown). Ridge swept metro Pittsburgh when he ran for reelection in 1998 - and a white Catholic with a working class background such as Ridge could create huge trouble for Specter in the west. He might also give him heartburn in the northeast. Apropos, the Quinnipiac poll has Ridge running well ahead of Specter in the southwest (outside Allegheny County), drawing even with him in the northeast, and running more than 2:1 ahead in Erie.

Could Ridge defeat Toomey in the primary? He'd certainly be formidable. Ridge defeated the more conservative Mike Fisher back in 1994 - and the fact that he is from the west, while Toomey is from the east, should give the former governor a boost in a state where the GOP electorate has become more western. He's pro-choice, of course, so that could be a problem - though it appears that Toomey was pro-choice at one point, too. Additionally, Ridge has war on terror credentials, having served as President Bush's first Secretary of Homeland Security. That is bound to be appealing to Pennsylvania conservatives.

Bottom line: Specter is weak, and Ridge's interest is an indication that other politicians perceive this weakness. From a purely self-interested perspective, Specter's switch from the Republican to the Democratic parties increased his chance of winning reelection - however, this does not mean he's a lock. I would have pegged his chances of reelection around maybe 20% before he made the jump. It's higher than that now, but with Ridge and Sestak thinking about jumping in, I wouldn't give him any better than even odds. Additionally, as I noted last week, Specter's jump so early in the cycle was another sign of weakness - and it has given prospective opponents time to decide whether they should challenge him. He may have had no choice but to switch so soon - but that is a sign of just how much trouble Arlen Specter was in.

-Jay Cost

Is Arlen Specter Safe Now?

The instant reaction to Arlen Specter's decision to switch parties was that it is a sign of GOP weakness. My take is that it is just as much a sign of Arlen Specter's weakness. As I wrote yesterday, I think this decision was due to Specter's problems in the state.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has consistently had a three-to-five point Democratic tilt to it. Yet this did not stop Republican John Heinz from winning reelection in 1982 with 59% of the vote (a great year for Democrats), and then with 66% of the vote in 1988. This is the mark of a senator who has cultivated a good personal relationship with his state. Specter's numbers are much less impressive. He won just 53% of the vote in 2004 - despite outspending his opponent 5-to-1. He had an extremely close call in 1992: after he went after Anita Hill on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he squeaked by Lynn Yeakel with just 49% of the vote. His biggest triumph was in 1998, when he won 61% of the vote. Yet he ran against a candidate who spent just $180,000 - and the best he could do was three in five Pennsylvanians.

Specter has never been a particularly strong candidate - and we can talk about the narrow intolerance of the Republican Party, but the fact is that the GOP money machine has consistently had to kick in tens of thousands of dollars every cycle in case Snarlin' Arlen gets himself into trouble, which he regularly does. So, when we're talking about the GOP's intolerance, we're talking about some ill-defined subset of the party, as those who have supported Specter include Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, George W. Bush, the Pennsylvania Republican Party, the Pennsylvania Republicans who have consistently voted for him in the general election, and so on.

So, let's assume for a moment that this "the GOP is a shrinking, pathetic rump" meme had not already taken hold in the press prior to Specter's departure. What would we infer about his decision? It'd be pretty simple: the guy is a lousy candidate who had finally worn out his welcome with his own side. After 28 years in the GOP, his reputation with the state party is so poor that he has to bail more than one year before his primary. Sure metro Philadelphia has lost a boatload of Republican voters - but isn't it amazing that this is enough to make Specter's position unsustainable? For many Pennsylvania residents who live in the west - like myself - this confirms what we have long suspected, Specter should have been labeled (R - Philadelphia). Clearly, this is a politician who has not cultivated a personal relationship with the broader state.

And not just the state GOP. He barely pulled in 60% of the vote in 1998 against a guy who spent a pittance - which means that a solid majority of the Democratic electorate pulled the lever for a guy they had never heard of, instead of Arlen Specter, who had been serving in the Senate for 20 years by that point. These are now Specter's core constituents. He thinks he stands a better chance with them.

Regarding the title question, I'd answer it in the negative. First of all, I would not underestimate Pat Toomey. He won three terms in PA 15 (Allentown), whose presidential vote is basically a microcosm of the country. He is going to have a lot of money - not just from Club for Growth donors, but angry Republicans nationwide. And Specter has handed him a major valence issue: the senior senator from Pennsylvania is above all interested in the senior senator from Pennsylvania. This has long been the rap on Specter - and on Tuesday he confirmed that in a big way. Money and a message are two crucial ingredients to electoral success - and Toomey will have both. I'd say that Toomey is also going to need an anti-incumbent, pro-Republican national mood to help him next year - as Rick Santorum enjoyed in 1994 - but I would not count him out. There is, when it's all said and done, little love lost between Arlen Specter and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Toomey could exploit this.

This, of course, assumes that Specter wins the nomination of the Democratic Party, whose voters split 71-28 against him in the 2004 election. And again, it is a sign of just how much water Specter has drained out of the pool that he thinks he'll stand a better chance with these voters rather than Republicans, who have consistently supported him at levels greater than 80%.

I'll put it simply: a Democrat with credibility, message, and money could give Specter just as much trouble as Toomey was set to. There is a very straightforward strategy to be pursued: win the Democrats who don't particularly care for Specter, either. By and large, this would be working class white Democrats in the west, upper income white liberals in the east, and African Americans of all income groups and ideological dispositions statewide. These groups have voted against Arlen Specter for nearly 30 years. A Democrat who can unite them under his banner could defeat him.

Can that coalition be created? I think so. A candidate who has money would - like Toomey - also have a great valence issue: why shouldn't the Pennsylvania Democratic Party demand a Democrat? In other words, the fact that Arlen Specter really has no partisan loyalty could conceivably hurt him in the Democratic primary, as it had in the GOP.

It is simply a matter of finding a decent candidate who can raise the cash. And before we assume that the Democratic Party establishment - complete with a popular president and a well-heeled party apparatus - can stop money flowing to opponents of Arlen Specter, we should consider the strange case of...Arlen Specter! Despite George W. Bush and the GOP's best efforts in 2004, Pat Toomey still raised $4.5 million. The party establishment can make sure its preferred candidate is funded - but that does not mean that an insurgent challenger cannot find access to dollars, either. Money in politics is like water flowing downhill. Good luck stopping it.

Ultimately, we'll just have to wait and see. If a big name Democrat tosses his or her hat into the ring - that's a sure sign Specter is going to face a real challenge. And again, it's important to keep in mind the timing. It's a year until the primary. Top-line Democrats have time to mull the decision, thanks to Arlen Specter. Again, just a sign of how weak he was in the GOP - he had to jump to the other side so early that any prospective opponent has time to get his or her ducks in a row.

To that end, this is from PA2010:

With the Democratic Party seemingly lining up behind Senator Arlen Specter at the state and national levels, Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7) has emerged as the most likely candidate to buck party leaders and run against Specter, party insiders and political analysts say.

While Democrats across the state were issuing statements in support of Specter's decision to switch parties Tuesday, Sestak was far more critical. He joined Republicans in lambasting Specter for political opportunism, and would not rule out a campaign of his own. His political profile, his large campaign war chest and his relative lack of ties to the state's Democratic apparatus have made him the odds-on favorite to run.

"Sestak can run to the left [of Specter] because he has military credentials," a House Democratic staffer said of the retired Navy Vice-Admiral.

The staffer added: "There's a lot of Democrats that are angry that [Specter will] be the Democratic nominee, especially since he admitted it was such a political calculation. I think there will be a Democratic primary."

Hmmm...a progressive Democrat with military credentials. It sounds to me like he'd have a leg up with two of those three voting groups: western working class Dems and (mostly eastern) upscale liberals.

Keep an eye on Sestak. Snarlin' Arlen certainly will.

-Jay Cost

Shifting Sands of PA Politics Endangered Specter

A common meme in the press is that Pennsylvania, like the rest of the Northeast, has shifted to the left in the last 20 years. However, matters are more complicated than this. Pennsylvania has exhibited a consistent, three-to-five point Democratic tilt over the last 50 years. That means that if, for instance, a Democrat wins the national vote by five points, we can expect him to win Pennsylvania by eight to ten points. We saw roughly this in 2008. Obama won the national vote by about seven points, and he won Pennsylvania by about ten points, for a three-point tilt. This is right in line with the historical average of the Keystone State.

This statewide consistency masks major changes within the state. There have been two big developments in Pennsylvania's political geography in the last 20 years that have counteracted each other - so that neither party has really gained a net benefit on the presidential level. However, these changes have cut decisively against Arlen Specter. I believe they are key to understanding why he left the GOP.

For the last twenty years or so, metropolitan Philadelphia in the southeast has been moving to the Democratic Party. However, this movement has so far been countered by movement toward the GOP in metro Pittsburgh in particular and the west in general. That, plus the population growth of the strongly Republican, exurban counties of Lancaster and York, means that the state as a whole still votes for President as it has for fifty years.

We can appreciate this in the following map, which shows the shift in presidential voting from 1976 to 2004.

PA Tilt 2004.jpg

I have not updated this map for 2008 - but I can say that metro Philadelphia continued its movement to the left while metro Pittsburgh moved to the right. McCain did better than Bush in five of the seven counties that make up the latter. He did no worse in Allegheny County, where the city of Pittsburgh is located. And he did only a point worse in heavily Republican Butler County, which has voted for the GOP in every election but 1964.

The story of Philadelphia's movement to the left has been well-documented, and I won't repeat it here. What's happened in the west has not gone as noticed - but its political consequence has been significant. It's worth a brief discussion.

This part of the country was staunchly New Deal Democratic for decades following the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan lost every county of metro Pittsburgh save one in 1984. However, in the last twenty years the steel industry has all but disappeared - with only the Edgar Thompson Works and the Steelers insignia as the last vestiges of what used to be. As the industrial jobs have gone overseas, greater Pittsburgh has moved to the right. This is a movement that has also been exhibited in the tri-state area. George W. Bush and John McCain did well in southern and western Ohio, as well as West Virginia. It's not coincidental that John McCain and Sarah Palin made their final stand here in Western PA.

How does this relate to Arlen Specter? He's from eastern Pennsylvania. That's where his political roots are - and that area has been atrophying Republicans. In the last five years, the GOP has lost about 60,000 registered Republicans statewide. In metropolitan Philadelphia alone, it has lost about 100,000. In other words, outside of metro Philly, the GOP has not shed voters. [Although with the growth in the size of the overall electorate, it has lost standing relative to the Democrats inside and outside metro Philadelphia.] Western Pennsylvania voters - while they are now more amenable to and constitute a larger portion of the state GOP - do not have local ties to Specter, tend to be culturally conservative and thus more likely to disagree with him on big issues like abortion, and are generally part of the GOP's rise in a part of the country that has little connection to the old party establishment in the Northeast.

In the 2004 GOP primary every county in metro Pittsburgh voted for Toomey over Specter - and Specter failed to crack 40% in several of them. In the general election that year, Specter ran behind Bush in six of the seven counties in metro Pittsburgh, even though he won the state by almost ten points and Bush lost it by two and a half. In 1992 - the last time Specter faced a tough general election challenge - his opponent, Lynn Yeakel, won six of the seven counties that border Ohio. Additionally, Toomey defeated Specter in York and Lancaster counties in the 2004 primary. Specter's narrow victory in the primary depended entirely on him sweeping Toomey in metropolitan Philadelphia, whose declining importance in the statewide Republican electorate has now made Specter exceedingly vulnerable.

I think the big story - which I do not expect to be emphasized because many Beltway pundits don't know much about Pennsylvania politics, especially west of the Appalachian Mountains - is that the political dynamic in the Keystone State has shifted, not so much against the GOP (at least on the presidential level), but against Arlen Specter, who has - during his twenty eight years in the Senate - failed to develop a durable political connection to Western Pennsylvania. When he entered the Senate, metropolitan Philadelphia, his home base, was also the GOP's base in the state. In 1980 four of the five counties in Philadelphia voted for Reagan while five of the seven counties in metro Pittsburgh voted for Carter. This has basically been inverted in the last quarter century - and while neither party's presidential candidate has been better off statewide for this shift, Arlen Specter has personally been on the losing end.

The interpretation from the wise political sages in Washington, D.C. is inevitably going to be about how the hardened, conservative rump Republican Party is so intolerant of a moderate like Arlen Specter that he had no choice but to bolt. However, this is quite an oversimplification. There is a big geographical component to this story: the west has become more important in party politics, and Specter has long been weak in the west.

One of the great all time books in political science is called Homestyle, by Richard Fenno. Professor Fenno tracked a dozen or so members of Congress in the 1970s to learn how they interacted with their constituents. He noted that incumbents frequently run into trouble when the demographics of their districts shift. If they don't shift with them, they can lose. The demographics of the Pennsylvania GOP have shifted on Arlen Specter - the base of the party has moved away from his home area where his personal ties are strongest. This left him extremely vulnerable heading into the 2010 primary. With Toomey positioned to take advantage - Specter switched sides.

-Jay Cost

Pressure Mounts on Jim Bunning

On Tuesday I noted that the Republican Party organization is lining up to support Arlen Specter in his battle against Pat Toomey. Meanwhile, it appears to be moving against Jim Bunning.

Our former colleague Reid Wilson has an interesting article at The Hill, which features this little tidbit:

Bunning will face either a rematch with Mongiardo or a battle with state Attorney General Jack Conway (D), who announced his own candidacy last week. Conway is rapidly scooping up support from prominent Kentucky Democrats while Mongiardo has backing from Gov. Steve Beshear (D).

If Bunning leaves the contest, Republican sources close to Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) say Grayson is prepared to make a bid, and that he would make his announcement within hours of Bunning's own. [Emphasis mine]

I'd take that as a strong signal of the party's intention. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, we'll have a replacement within hours!

The main thrust of this story is that Bunning's first quarter fundraising numbers were dreadful:

Bunning raised just $263,000 in the first quarter, finishing March with $376,000 in the bank. Making matters worse, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, the only Democrat who raised money during the quarter, brought in almost $430,000 after just more than a month of fundraising.

As Reid reports, Mitch McConnell, who is not up for reelection for six years, actually outraised Bunning. That makes me suspect that the party establishment is actually trying to freeze Bunning out. It's impossible to know for sure - frustratingly, all of the really interesting stuff of party politics occurs behind doors that are closed, locked, and flanked by armed guards. But I'd note with interest that Mitch McConnell's Bluegrass PAC contributed to eight Republican senators during the previous filing period: Burr, Specter, Crapo, DeMint, Grassley, Isakson, Shelby, and Thune. It chipped in to the NRSC, the Kentucky GOP, the Coleman recount fund, and even Rob Portman's campaign to replace George Voinovich in Ohio. However, not a dime to Bunning. From the looks of Bunning's recent fundraising report, Republican politicos and money (wo)men are taking the cue from McConnell and company.

Not only is the GOP not helping Bunning out, it's also blasting him for not getting any help (anonymously, of course):

"Given what [Bunning will] need to compete in 2010, this is a disaster," said one Kentucky GOP operative. "The margin for tactical error since his race in 2004 has decreased dramatically, and the amount it takes to win in 2010 has increased dramatically."

Talk about adding insult to injury!

Overall, I find this Bunning story fascinating. The party organization has limited means at its disposal to push incumbent candidates out of a race. None of them are particularly efficient - sometimes they can work, but it is typically messy. So, they are rarely employed. But it looks to me like the party is doing everything it can to push Bunning out. This is a rare occurrence - and one to keep watching if you're interested in how the party actually functions.

-Jay Cost

NRSC Set To Back Specter

This snippet from the Washington Post's overview of Arlen Specter's candidacy stuck out at me:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has written a letter to fellow Republicans asking them to support Specter.

"While I doubt Arlen could win an election in my home state of Texas, I am certain that I could not get elected in Pennsylvania," Cornyn wrote. "I believe that Senator Specter is our best bet to keep this Senate seat in the GOP column."

In a sign of party support, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's Bluegrass PAC contributed $10,000 to Specter last month.

This is par for the course. Typically, party committees back their incumbent candidates, even a heterodox like Arlen Specter. In 2004, the NRSC contributed $320,000 in Specter's effort to defeat Toomey, and his fellow senators contributed $83,000 prior to the primary election. In contrast, while Toomey received some aid from outside groups (like Club for Growth) and fellow House members, sitting Senators did not support his cause.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, in 2002 the NRSC basically withheld support of Bob Smith in New Hampshire, contributing just $15,500 nearly 10 months before the primary. While a few sitting senators endorsed Smith, others endorsed his opponent, John Sununu, who had the endorsement of George H.W. Bush and Andy Card, George W. Bush's chief of staff at the time of the primary. Plenty of incumbent senators tossed in thousands of dollars to help him defeat Smith in the primary.

Clearly, that will not be happening with Arlen Specter this cycle. Instead, look for a move against Jim Bunning. The party right now is doing everything it can to induce him to step aside. If he doesn't, it will be interesting to see if and how the GOP supports his opponent. The reason is best summarized by Richard Shelby's justification of backing Sununu over Smith: "'It was not personal at all, it was strategic." Exactly. The party is in pursuit of a majority, and it is likely to back the candidate most likely to win. In most cases, this is the incumbent.

In my opinion, I think the GOP is making the right move here. While I appreciate that conservatives are aggravated with Arlen Specter and his persistent moderation - not to mention his cantankerous nature - I have trouble seeing how a coldly rational cost-benefit analysis justifies the challenge. The trouble is that Toomey's chance of winning the Senate seat will be substantially lower than Specter's. This decreased probability of victory must be balanced with whatever increased conservatism he might exhibit in the Senate should he win - which makes me think that overall the party will be worse off. And then of course there is the cash that will be spent on the primary alone - as mentioned above, the NRSC alone contributed $320,000 in 2004. That is money that could have gone to help Republicans defeat Democrats.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, the party's support is limited. There are pretty strict rules about how much a party can give directly to a candidate, or even coordinate with a candidate on spending shared dollars. Parties have unlimited capacity to spend independently of candidates - but that means there is no coordination between the two, and thus the prospect of inefficiency and even embarassment.

I suppose you could say that this is the ying to the candidate control yang. Party organizations in our system are quite weak. Just as the party cannot really induce Arlen Specter to be a "better" Republican - it cannot stop Toomey from challenging him, nor can it even contribute a difference-making sum to save the senior senator from Pennsylvania. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, candidates like Specter basically stand on their own.

-Jay Cost

Should Republicans Support Toomey's Challenge to Specter?

Stuart Rothenberg's column today argues that Chris Dodd, rather than Jim Bunning, is the most vulnerable senator up for reelection in 2010. Rothenberg has a good point, and there is little doubt that both Dodd and Bunning are in trouble. But so also is Arlen Specter, who is headed toward a tough primary battle with former representative Pat Toomey.

Specter is feeling the heat, so much so that he has already released an ad against Toomey, which he subsequently had to walk back. He has good reasons to be nervous. Toomey mounted a robust challenge in 2004, and Specter squeaked out a narrow victory.

Specter's chief problem is that Pennsylvania's primaries are closed, meaning only Republicans can vote. This could make the difference because Republican registration has been falling off. At primary time in 2004, Democrats held a 500k registration edge. Last November, it was 1.3 million, thanks to new registrants and party switchers. Presumably, the voters who have drifted to the Democratic Party are more moderate - and thus more amenable to Specter. So, the remaining Republicans are presumably now more conservative, and more amenable to Toomey.

Pennsylvania is a difficult state to represent because it is so diverse. It's a bit rural, a bit urban, a bit industrial, a bit post-industrial. And then of course there is Philadelphia. Arlen Specter has dealt with this problem by racking up a studiously moderate voting record. His lifetime ideological score is 0.06 (where -1 is entirely liberal, 1 is entirely conservative). This is identical to the score of the late John Heinz, but much more moderate than Rick Santorum, whose 0.349 score made him a darling of conservatives, but a fish in a barrel in 2006.

Specter's persistent political problem is the fact that a not insignificant minority of the state's population is conservative, especially in the central and western portions of the state. This presents an opportunity for an ambitious candidate like Pat Toomey.

However, is it good for the party for Toomey to challenge? Obviously, it is good for Toomey - and many conservatives have become frustrated with Specter over the years. So, they'd like to see him go. But frustration is more an emotional response than a rational one. Specter's lifetime voting record has been moderate, but he can win the state - and he has never failed to side with the GOP on the all-important question of organizing the chamber. Toomey's record would be more conservative, but his chances of victory are much lower. Additionally, a tough, negative primary battle might damage both of them.

I want to put some hard numbers to this - or more specifically, allow you to do that. I have configured the following spreadsheet. It calculates the expected ideological score of the next U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, whether it be Arlen Specter, Pat Toomey or somebody else.

To do that, it weighs seven relevant factors against one another. The first three we hold constant:

(a) The expected ideological score of Specter. We'll hold this constant at 0.06, his lifetime score.

(b) The expected ideological score of Toomey. He had a very conservative 0.694 score when he was in the House. However, he'd have to moderate in the Senate. Let's assume that he would be as conservative as Santorum, which would put him at 0.349.

(c) The expected ideological score of the the Democratic challenger. Let's assume he would be as liberal as Bob Casey, Jr., which would put him at -.304.

The final four statistics are yours to manipulate, though I have put some baseline numbers in to get you started:

(d) Specter's chance of defeating Toomey in the primary.

(e) Specter's chance of winning the general if Toomey challenges Specter.

(f) Specter's chance of winning the general if Toomey does not challenge Specter.

(g) Toomey's chance of winning the general.

[Disclaimer: the baseline figures are not my actual estimates. They're just there to get you started.]

As mentioned above, the ideological scores here go from -1 (perfectly liberal) to 1 (perfectly conservative). They're based on the DW-Nominate methodology that is a mainstay of political science research.

The goal is to find reasonable numbers so that (a) Toomey challenges Specter and (b) the Senate is made more conservative as a consequence. I tried my hand at this for half an hour or so, and the only reasonable situations I could find where the Senate shifts to the right are where Specter's chances of defeating Toomey increase.

Final word. As you noodle with this, remember that in 2004 Toomey and Specter spent a total of $20 million between the primary and the general election. That number presumably will be higher next year - so whatever movement to the right you can generate is purchased at a very high price, with dollars that could go to help other Republican candidates.

-Jay Cost

The Fight Over the Economy Is Just Beginning

In my recent discussion with Ruy Teixeira, I argued that true ideologues constitute a relatively small percentage of the public. But that is not to say that the broad middle of the nation does not have a core set of values that guides its political decisions. Among other things, it believes firmly in the idea of economic growth, and it isn't hesitant to punish politicians for weak economies.

The relationship between the electorate and the politicians is akin to Darth Vader and his lieutenants in The Empire Strikes Back. When the underlings failed Vader, he impatiently struck them down without a second thought, moving on to the next in command. Similarly, when politicians fail to deliver growth, the judgment of the electorate is just as swift and almost as brutal.

A Gallup poll conducted in 1999 found that 71% of the country approved of George H.W. Bush's job as president. Yet Mr. Bush had the misfortune of presiding over a downswing in the business cycle. Though the economy had been growing for six straight quarters by Election Day, unemployment was above 7%. He won just 37% of the vote. That 1990/91 recession also hurt his successor. In the early Clinton years, the economy grew and unemployment fell, but growth in real per capita income was slow to rebound. By the midterm, just 43% of voters approved of Clinton's handling of the economy, and the Democrats lost 52 House seats.

How's that for brutality? One (relatively mild) recession, and the public delivers harsh punishments to both parties years after growth returned. "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

There are three lessons for today's politics. First, the country is impatient about growth. Recessions are virtually immoral in this country - and if growth is slow to return, or if its effects are slow to be felt by the average voter, the public will not take it lightly. The top line GDP number is not enough. If other indicators - like unemployment and real income, metrics that speak to how people are experiencing the economy - are still weak, the public's response can be just as wrathful.

Second, the public's diagnosis of the economic problem need not be enlightened. Imagine you lost your keys on a dark street. You'll look for them under the nearest streetlight - not because that's where they are, but because that's where you can see. That's how the electorate makes judgments about complicated subjects like the economy. It focuses on what it understands, whether or not that gets to the real issues. Recall the political damage George H.W. Bush suffered because he hadn't seen a price scanner before. Somehow, this meant he was out of touch, and thus not suited to bring the economy to recovery.

Third, Walter Shaprio recently suggested that Republicans will not gain from any populist backlash. I wouldn't be so sure. Out parties can make substantial, recession-related midterm gains despite having been led by unpopular presidents. Perhaps the best example is 1938. Amidst the "Roosevelt Recession," the country turned to the party of the reviled Herbert Hoover, who still had a negative rating in 1944. FDR's majority in the subsequent Congress depended entirely upon the old Confederacy - meaning that the GOP was the country's first choice outside the one-party South.

This links into the second point. The public lacks economic expertise, yet it must still assign blame for the struggling economy. It is unsurprising that - regardless of whether he deserves it - the President is often the recipient. After all, he is the most visible politician in the country. Additionally, Presidents are quick to accept credit for a flourishing economy, so inevitably they take the blame for when it languishes. When you blame the President and want a change, the opposition party is the only viable option.

While the current focus on Timothy Geithner, the Treasury, and the financial markets is understandable - this will probably not be the script of the broader political battle over the next 20 months. Assuming that the financial system is brought under control, the political debate will focus relentlessly on recession and recovery. Though the Administration, the CBO and the Blue Chip forecasters project modest growth in 2010 (ranging from 1.9% to 3.0%), all of them expect high unemployment (7.9% to 9.1%) and an economy performing below peak capacity. If these predictions are true - the corresponding public dissatisfaction will define the campaign of 2010, and the legislative battles that precede it.

Both sides will struggle to pin blame for the weak economy on the other. Republicans will indict President Obama, arguing that his policies failed to improve things. President Obama will remind voters of the previous administration, arguing that congressional Republicans advocate the same policies that brought about the recession. The public lacks the technical expertise to arbitrate based on the merits - so the outcome will depend in part on how bad the economy actually is (the worse it is, the worse for President Obama), and which side shows the greatest political acumen.

If you find this to be a dispiriting commentary on democratic accountability, think of it this way. Electoral justice might be rough, but it's also consistent: bad economies mean electoral defeat for somebody. Thus, those who are still in office when the dust settles learn a valuable lesson: grow the economy, or next time it could be you. In the long run, the public gets what it wants - a government dedicated first and foremost to growth.

-Jay Cost