From the Managing Editor:
The following essay by Scott Harris marks the first in what we hope will be a regular feature on the Daily Strategist blog and the TDS website: Strategy from Young Democrats. The editors and I are interested in well-written, empirically based pieces from college students and other young Democrats. Please send submissions — with some information about yourself — to firstname.lastname@example.org. -sw
Institutional Corruption and the Midterm Elections
by Scott Harris
Political handicappers all over the country were scrambling in the early days of October to be the first to predict how the new rush of scandals, from a pedophilic Congressman to a book by Bob Woodward depicting a systematic deception of the American people and deliberate manipulation of Iraq facts by their president, will impact the 2006 midterm elections. Of course, our gut feeling tells us that scandal is bad and the public will react negatively against the people in power when things in government go poorly. While there has been no dearth of polling to back up a lot of the analysis that is about to be made here, with common political reasoning alone, some strong inferences can be made.
Since the beginning of instant politics, there have always been a few golden tools that candidates stick to in the art of campaigning. The first and foremost is television advertisements. Positive ads are known to increase turnout and harden support from the candidates’ base and leaners. Negative ads are known to depress turnout and soften an opposing candidate’s support among unaffiliated and undecided voters. You can bet that the GOP is worried about these effects of Foley and Woodward’s Iraq book.
First, examine with specificity how a depressed turnout is likely to affect swing districts in November. The GOP was already nervous about how two years’ worth of bad news was going to affect their GOTV operations so the Democrats started with an advantage. Based on my analysis, depressed Election Day turnout of Republican voters puts at least a dozen seats in play that ordinarily wouldn’t be.
In order for the Republicans to pull off a victory in contests like the one in Nebraska – where populist Democrat Scott Kleeb is facing off against Adrian Smith for an open seat – the Party has to turn out the group that has been its most valuable asset in the past three elections: evangelical voters. Kleeb to some extent has reinvigorated the Nebraska Democratic Party and, with some help from the DNC, the campaign is swinging into a high-gear voter-targeting outfit. Baron Hill (IN-09), Brad Ellsworth (IN-08), and Joe Donnelly (IN-02) are part of a revival that has the state party poised to do the impossible in Indiana – give Democrats control of the Congressional delegation and the state House. The Partisan Voter Index (PVI) of those districts is R+7, R+9 and R+4, respectively. Simply put, Democrats ordinarily should not be favored to win those three seats. Shuler in NC-11, Space in OH-18, Kilroy in OH-15, Burner in WA-08 and Weaver in KY-02 are a few more examples. And, by the way, the same is true for Democrats currently holding onto red seats. In most other elections, John Barrow (GA-12), Jim Marshall (GA-8) and Chet Edwards (TX-18) would be campaigning in hyper mode to ensure they weren’t bounced by an upstart conservative Republican.
Democrats are competitive because GOP turnout is predicted to be dampened in deep red country, and the scandals of Foley and the handling of the Iraq war will only serve to make the situation worse. Christian conservatives were already flirting with the suggestion that evangelicals stay home to punish the Republicans for failing to pursue their agenda fiercely enough and have written a string of editorials, including several from prominent and influential members of the Republican cause. In the latest Hotline poll, the approval rating of Congress was 28%. In another recent L.A. Times poll, Democrats bested Republicans as the party that would be more equipped to govern, 44% to 38%. Does anyone think those numbers are going to get better for the Republicans?
Second, examine more generally how a negative political environment will impact the likelihood that already competitive seats become Dem-favored and how October uncertainty would force the GOP into bad or just plain stupid decisions. The Foley scandal and other recent revelations, even in this early media stage, have put a few GOP leaders on alert for re-election and, thus, have disrupted the Republican media machine.
Going into the last month before the elections, Bush was providing the Republican Party something of a redemption. His approval ratings ticked back up into the 40s, after a summer of mid-30s and the Party’s marks on terrorism and the War in Iraq also enjoyed modest bumps. Then Bill Clinton faced off with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, and Woodward’s book came out. And in the next media cycle, attention was turned to Bush’s efforts to combat terrorism (or lack thereof) before 9/11. The Foley sex scandal broke loose on Washington a few days later and no one wanted to talk about Iraq, terrorism or pre-9/11 efforts to kill bin Laden. They wanted to talk about how the GOP leadership mishandled having a child predator in their midst.
A strong, united campaign message has been the centerpiece of the Republican strategy since the Contract with America. What about the scandal has knocked Republicans out of their usually disciplined message operation?
First, the Foley scandal has put two seats of GOP leaders in jeopardy. Tom Reynolds (NY-26), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, or the man responsible for electing Republicans to Congress, is trailing his challenger (Jack Davis). Many people in Washington and in his district see the writing on the wall and understand this is a seat they just lost. Very unexpectedly, the seat of House Speaker Dennis Hastert is suddenly a prize to be won. No polling has been released on this race as of this writing, but you can bet that both the NRCC and the DCCC have one in the field right now and depending on the results, we should see whether or not the Speaker has just made himself a prime target for the midterm elections. There is little doubt that last week was the worst press week for Hastert in his political career.
Second, out of fear that they could be next on the chopping block, Republicans are turning on Republicans. Kirk Fordham, a now former aide to both ex-Rep. Foley and Rep. Reynolds, told the AP that he warned Hastert’s office three years ago about Foley’s inappropriate contact with pages. That seems to back up the account of Majority Leader Boehner. The denials coming from the Speaker’s office aren’t really denials, which leaves it to speculation that someone is going to find out that these meetings did take place, the Republican leadership did discuss Foley, and chose to do nothing. No one wants to have their career in Washington end because they couldn’t place the blame on someone else.
Scott Harris is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and is studying political science. He can be reached at email@example.com.
From the Managing Editor: