Rothenberg Fails to Read Between the Poll Numbers

Posted April 27, 2009 at 3:05pm

I have always been a great admirer of Stuart Rothenberg. His recent column, however, calling lunacy the notion posited by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and me that a wave could be building for Republican prospects in the midterm elections suffers from too great a reliance on polls and not enough on an artful reading between the numbers.

It’s true that political surveys don’t currently show a huge tide. That would be relevant if the elections were scheduled for this weekend. As it happens, it’s not and they’re not.

In fact, the kind of frustration and dissatisfaction Rothenberg rightly attributes as the cause for major political waves is exactly the kind of sentiment polls almost always fail to predict a year or more out from an election.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, statistics being more pliable than the stubbornness of facts, allow me to resort briefly to some numbers of my own.

One hundred days after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, he enjoyed a favorable rating of 69 percent. Some 19 months later, Republicans took a bath in the midterm elections, losing 27 House seats.

Ten years later, in 1991, George H.W. Bush enjoyed approval ratings of 90 percent. The following year he was tossed out of office with a paltry 37 percent of the vote.

In 1993, some three months following his inauguration, Bill Clinton enjoyed a favorable rating of 60 percent. In 1994, a political tsunami wiped out 54 Democratic Members and a majority that had lasted 40-plus years.

I would argue the reason in every case was more than simple dissatisfaction. It was deep disappointment in unmet hope and an abiding fear in what was to come. It was also the availability of an alternative plan to the one promoted by those in power.

The greater the hope and the higher the expectation for positive change, the more visceral the anger when those hopes and expectations go unmet.

Today, hopes are indeed high. There is a great reservoir of good will toward our president. Most Americans want him to succeed because they want the economic security he’s promised his success will create. They’re even willing to overlook things they don’t like about him — things like a $20 trillion national debt and $1.7 trillion federal deficit.

If the president does succeed, and his policies do work to restore economic security, then Rothenberg will be right and there will be no Republican wave in 2010. If, on the other hand, the president’s policies don’t work, if the economy gets worse and Americans sink further into worry about their economic well-being, then that reservoir of hope and good will will burst and a fair number of Democratic casualties will likely result.

Other factors bolster Republican hopes as well. First, great contrasts make for great elections, and the distinction between Republican principles, when Republicans actually stand on their principles, and those of the Democrats could not be more stark.

Second, the president won’t be on the ballot in 2010. His pleas for the participation of the disenchanted aren’t likely to work for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democrats in Congress the way they did for his own candidacy for the same reason it’s dumb of Republicans to attack Pelosi. Few people know who she is and still fewer people care.

Third, GOP base voters will be energized whether the economy improves or not in a way they haven’t been since 2004. In fact, it’s difficult to remember in the commotion of history-making that Barack Obama only won the election with 53 percent thanks in large measure to a depressed GOP and high Democrat turnout that will likely be reversed in 2010.

Whether enough Democrats are swept away to restore Republican control of the House is indeed an unsettled question. Republicans still have a steep hill to climb. There are in fact 40-plus seats they could win. But winning them will take more than Democratic missteps.

Republicans must have a message that’s relevant and compelling. They must have credible candidates with conviction and passion to carry that message. And they must run adequately funded and well-engineered campaigns that convey those messages effectively.

Should all these things come to pass, then Republicans do indeed have a chance to recapture the House and reassert their relevance. And if a little cheerleading is required to help Republicans prepare for the lightning strike that may be ahead, then bring out the pompoms and the short skirts. I can’t speak for Gingrich or Cantor, but I for one have the legs.

Tony Marsh is president of Marsh Copsey + Associates Inc., a strategic communications and political media consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.