We have updated our memo from its original version to include updated projections on the total 2016 debate audiences to include the seventh and eighth Republican debates, and the additional four debates sanctioned by the DNC, including the audience numbers from the fifth Democratic debate last week. (2/8/16)
This memo looks at the audiences the Presidential Primary debates received in 2016 and 2008. Top line analysis can be found below, and tables of the audiences of each debate which received ratings in both 2016 and 2008 can be found on pages 2 and 3 of the full memo, attached (at bottom).
More information about the debate over the 2016 debates can be found in our backgrounder.
-2016, Republicans – 8 debates, 129.5m total viewers, 16.19m per debate. At current rates, the 12 scheduled GOP debates will be seen by 194.26m people.
-2016, Democrats – 5 debates, 47m, 9.4m per debate. At current rates, the 10 scheduled Dem debates will be seen by 94m people.
-2008, Republicans – 14 debates, 42.87m total viewers, 3.07m per debate.
-2008, Democrats – 16 debates, 75.22m total viewers, 4.7m per debate (Dems had another 10 debates which were not rated, so total viewership was higher than 75.22m).
- In 2008, the 16 Democratic debates outperformed the 14 GOP debates by more than 55% per debate (4.7m per debate vs. 3.07m). In 2016, the 6 GOP debates are outperforming the 4 Democratic debates by a similar margin, 72% per debate (16.19m vs 9.4m per debate). It is a dramatic reversal.
- Despite very large audiences for the debates this cycle, the smaller number of Democratic debates (10 compared to 12 GOP in 2016 and 26 in 2008) means that the total audience of the Democratic debates in 2016 will be only slightly larger than the 2008 Democratic total, and possibly as much as 100m less than the GOP total, which amounts to about half of the GOP total
-The 12 GOP debates are on track to produce more than 4 times the audience per debate than their 14 debates produced in 2008, and almost 5 times the total audience. The DNC debates are producing about twice the audience per debate that the 2008 debates produced, and, in aggregate, are on track to produce about 25 percent more in total audience than the 2008 debates produced.
-The much maligned DNC approach to the debates is perhaps best understood by the audiences garned by the recent New Hampshire debates. The first DNC NH debate was on the Saturday before Christmas. The second was hastily thrown together by candidates needing greater exporsure than the inadequate DNC schedule had given them. The first debate, on ABC, recieved 8m viewers. The second, on MSNBC in weekday primetime, received 4.5m viewers. The GOP NH debate which aired this past Saturday also on ABC received 13.2m viewers. The GOP weekend debate outperformed the weeknight DNC debate three fold this week; the GOP ABC debate on a better Saturday night had a 65% higher audience than the Dem ABC debate in NH; and the single GOP NH debate this week had more viewers than both Dem NH debates combined.
-The inferior and flawed debate DNC approach has let the Democrats down this cycle, giving their candidates and their arguments far less exposure than what Republicans have received.
On Wednesday, February 3rd, this version was revised, and corrected, from the original. See note below.
Those pesky voters did their thing last night and created a brand new Presidential race in both parties. Cruz, Rubio and Sanders all outperformed expectations, and head into New Hampshire with renewed vigor. Trump disappointed, though one would assume he will do better in a primary state where organization matters a bit less (if he doesn’t collapse). Hillary Clinton retains a huge structural advantage in the Democratic race, but received a very real warning that she will need to continue to improve, grow and respond to current circumstances or face a far more serious challenge than her team has seemed prepared for (see this recent Greg Sargent piece in the Washington Post for more on this).
What happens next? As I wrote last week, we all have to more humility in our projections about this race, as it is volatile and uncertain. Conventional wisdom has Trump and Sanders winning New Hampshire next week, but we have a week of campaigning, town halls, debates and other things that could once again toss the CW of 2016 on its head. Remember that in both 1992 and 2008 New Hampshire was very very good to the Clintons, and could be again. I have no real thoughts about the race post New Hampshire at this point though my assumption is that Sanders will close the gap with Clinton nationally and in most states, and raise enough money to allow him to compete with Clinton head to head for as the election moves beyond the four state early window.
A few additional observations on the Tuesday after Iowa:
The Democratic debates – Last week the Clinton campaign advocated for a debate to be added this week in New Hampshire, the Sanders campaign agreed but only if they and the DNC could agree to three more debates. The issue of a new debate schedule remains unresolved as of this morning, and of course all debates and forums for the Democrats going forward will only be Clinton and Sanders now. For the DNC this negotiation is an opportunity to erase the impression of favoritism they have clearly showed in the debate schedule to this point; or reinforce it. The outcome of the talks could have a huge impact on 2016.
Enthusiasm – Democrats should remain worried about enthusiasm. As we’ve documented elsewhere, the GOP debates are getting far larger audiences than the Democrats. Compared to 2008, the Rs debates are generating 5 times the viewership while the Dem debates are only up twofold. Similarly, the 2016 Iowa caucuses saw a 50% increase in turnout for the Rs from 2008 (120,000 to 180,000), while the Democratic turnout number was off by 40% from 2008 (240,000 to 171,000). While these numbers are not predictive of outcomes this fall, and the two primaries are of course very different, given the enthusiasm problem Democrats have experienced in 2010 and 2014 any evidence of an enthusiasm gap in 2016 has to be worrisome to party leaders.
Young People – According to the entrance polls last night Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by 70 points with voters under 30, 84-14.. 70 points!. Will be important to watch if this gap begins to show up with voters of color in the coming states, mitigating Clinton’s much noted early advantage with nonwhites (particularly in higher turnout primary states). I will have more on issue later, as it is emerging as perhaps the most significant demographic story to watch on the Democratic side.
Political Reform/Changing the Clinton Narrative – I made the case last week that Clinton’s refusal to take up the political reform mantle has been a bit inexplicable. She can run as both an experienced hand who can make the system work better, and argue that those who know the system best are most able to change it. But the agenda she offers on reform has to be real, meaningful, biting and persuasive. My piece from last week offers some ideas on what that agenda could be but it has to start with a commitment to close the Clinton Foundation and have family members forgo all speaking fees while she is President.
David Axelrod had a great related insight last night on CNN. Paraprhasing, he said that when you run on "experience" the campaign is all about you, not about the country, the voters, an agenda. Bernie has made it all about us, the future, the country. As a Clinton 1992 guy I remember, deeply, about how we made our entire campaign about his argument, about the future, about the US. Perhaps it is time for Clinton to invert her campaign, and make her pitch about us and her compelling agenda for the future, and not so much about her and her complicated family.
Note 2/3- In the original version of this memo, I mistakenly attributed the difference between Sanders and Clinton in the Iowa Caucus to coin tosses in six precincts. While there were coin tosses, I misunderstood what type of delegate they were awarding. As this good piece from Media Matters explains, those six delegates awarded by the coin tosses due to the arcane system used in Iowa would have not have been enough to wipe away Hillary Clinton's 3.77 delegate lead as of yesterday afternoon. So I stand corrected, and have removed the incorrect passage from the current draft of the memo.
This column takes the place of my regular "Monday Musings" column which looks at the national political landscape and is published most Mondays here on the NDN site. You can find previous columns here.
Full disclosure: I will vote for Hillary Clinton in the DC Democratic primary, and given the maximum contribution to her campaign.
The trend lines we discussed last week continued into this one: Trump appears to be in the process of besting Cruz in Iowa and everywhere else; and the Democratic race remained too close to call in Iowa and New Hampshire. Some observations:
Humility About What Comes Next – Given the poll mistakes/errors of recent years, the challenges with getting an accurate likely voter screen rate, lots of political volatility, rapidly changing demographics, voters having far more access to political information than before, it is important that all of us have a bit of humility about predicting outcomes this election season. I’ve tried to stick with poll aggregates and trends, which while not predictive, are instructive. Doing a deep dive on the numbers this morning it sure seems as if Trump is in a very strong position to win the GOP nomination, while the Democratic race is too close to call. If Sanders wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, I have far less faith in the Clinton “fire wall” than others. Wins in those early states along with a very strong grassroots money machine and organization could make Sanders a significant threat to Clinton as the map gets bigger. But if Hillary wins Iowa she will re-assert a degree of control over the race she doesn’t have right now.
Likewise, I am not convinced at this point that Trump ends up being a disaster for the Rs in the general. Possible, but so is a long transformation into a more conventional figure enhanced by extraordinary Trumpian media instincts and skills. Folks have been underestimating him from the get go, and it would be unwise to write him off in the fall.
Returning to the Democrats, it is also important to remember that the last three Democrats to get to the White House ran against the “establishment” and beat the conventional wisdom of their time. Democrats are just not in the coronation business. Along these lines be sure to review Greg Sargent’s recent piece which explains why the Sanders challenge is important for Clinton. What happens now with the Democrats? All comes down to strategy and execution. A great window into this final week is the new Sanders and Clinton “closing” ads. And be sure to watch the CNN “town hall” tonight at 9pm - will matter!
Clinton and Political Reform – One of the more puzzling elements of the 2016 campaign is why Hillary Clinton hasn’t run more aggressively on her very ambitious and thoughtful political reform agenda. I think there is an obvious way to turn her experience and understanding of the dark side of politics into a broader argument that it takes an insider to fix the system from the inside. She can not only run on her articulated plans, but could commit to suspending the foundation if she were to become the nominee and closing it if elected, leading a government wide effort to modernize the treatment of data and email in a new cyber age, tying Congressional pay to getting budgets done on time (no budget no pay), creating a minimum number of days Congress must be in session each cycle, etc. The reforms she could offer to change the system have to be biting, real, and bring about real change. While I think she is smart to hug Obama and offer continuity as a matter of core strategy, this is one area she should offer a sharper break with him. Trump, Sanders and Cruz all are offering some version of a radical overhaul of the system. She needs to join this chorus in her own way, recognizing that part of her argument – first women President – is unlikely to be sufficient.
Reflections on the Democratic Bench – The strong reviews Senator Cory Booker received this weekend while stumping for Hillary Clinton brought to mind the ongoing debate about the strength of the Democratic bench. My own take on this debate is that the high end of the next generation of Democrats is very strong, and can match the Ryan, Rubio, Cruz cohort – Booker, Newsom, Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Patrick Murphy, Castro, Cuomo, Kaine, O’Malley. If Democrats didn’t have such an usual election this time we may have seen many of these candidates take a run and audition on the national stage the way the Rs have done this time. Part of what is holding back this next generation of Democrats is the success of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and their larger than life allies – Gore, Hillary, Kerry, Biden, Reid, Pelosi – who occupy a space that has no equivalent on the Republican side. There is only so much space in the political universe, and the Democrats have a highly successful aging boomer cohort that is just not leaving a lot of room for the next generation. The next gen Rs – a group I call the “children of Reagan” – have no successful set of Presidents and allies to crowd their progress. So the “lack of a Democratic bench” insight is actually the result of a good problem to have, one the Rs don’t have – the presence of two living successful Democratic Presidents and Administrations (filling the Cabinet over 16 years also took many potential Senators and Governors out of electoral play).
While this upper end of next gen Democrats can hold its own with the upper end of the Rs, the problem for the Democrats is what comes underneath this talented tier. This is where the enormous GOP advantage in the state legislatures and governor’s mansions will, over time, become an enormous structural problem for the national Democratic Party. The pipeline the Rs have now will allow them to produce far more higher and medium tier politicians capable of winning elections and exercising power. Add to this the exposure a more open party is giving to Ryan, Rubio, Cruz, Christie etc and you can imagine the Rs being able to maintain a degree of political power in Washington and in the states for a decade or more, even as the nation as a whole moves closer to the Democrats. My analogy is the Democrats have a better product but the Rs have a better management team right now. No Democrat should be optimistic about how this competition is likely to play out in the short and medium term.
Tuesday morning update - The Dem Town Hall. I thought all three candidates performed well, continuing to show growth and improvement on the trail (why you have these things on TV). Sanders was probably seen by the most people by going first, and did well, adding more information to people still wanting to learn more about him. Hillary was unusually animated and effective last night too, showing her experience and facility on a wide range of issues. I don't know if the Town Hall was seen be enough people to be a difference maker, and was hard to see how last night could have swayed people one way or the other (and Clinton did get dinged up a bit). But Clinton and her campaign have clearly begun to rise to the serious Sanders challenge now, and are throwing everything they got into this final week in Iowa.
"Monday Musings" is a new column looking at the national political landscape published most Mondays here on the NDN site. You can find previous columns here.
Full disclosure - I will vote for Hillary Clinton in the DC Democratic primary.
What a political week. 2 debates, a State of the Union, dramatic events in/with Iran. Where do things stand?
The Democrats – Polls suggest that Sanders and Clinton head into the all important February window with Iowa a tossup and Sanders slightly ahead in New Hampshire. If Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he will then be able to mount a very serious challenge to Secretary Clinton as he has the resources and organization to compete even as the map gets bigger. I am not sold, like many, that the “Clinton firewall” survives losses in Iowa and New Hampshire so what happens in Iowa in two weeks is shaping up to be very consequential.
My take on the Sunday night debate was all three candidates did well, and there was no “winner.” Sanders held his own in what was a very tough debate for him. O’Malley impressed, again. But Clinton may have had the best night, strategically, as she opened up an attack on Sanders (his distance from Obama) that I think over time will be very troublesome for the Vermont Senator. Yesterday the President hit 51% approval in the Gallup daily track, his best showing since early 2013 and a very respectable number this late in his Administration. It has long been my contention that Democrats must defend the Obama Presidency in 2016, for if we cannot convince the public our team can do a good job when in the White House why elect more of us? So I think this argument will be central to both the primary and the general, and it was artfully argued by Secretary Clinton on Sunday night.
And of course hats off to the President for a terrific SOTU speech, and for what will be increasingly seen as a successful two terms in the White House.
The Republicans – They also face the prospect of an outsider candidate winning both Iowa and New Hampshire – Trump in this case. Two weeks out Iowa appears to be a tossup between him and Cruz, with Trump holding big leads everywhere else. If Trump wins Iowa sure feels it will be hard to stop him from winning the nomination at that point. There is evidence that the various attacks on Cruz – Goldman loan, eligibility, Ethanol opposition – are beginning to take their toll on him. How much so? We will find out in two weeks. Unlike the Ds, the Rs have another debate before Iowa/NH, coming on Jan 28th. This one will really matter.
Debate viewership tally so far: 6 GOP debates, 102m viewers (17m per debate), 4 Dem debates, 43m viewers, (10.75m per debate). At this rate the 12 GOP debates will be seen by about 204m viewers, the 6 Democratic debates 64m At 10.2m viewers, NBC's 4th Democratic debate was the second most watched Democratic debate, but still came in lower than any of the 6 GOP debates so far, including their two on a little watched cable network, Fox Business (updated 1/18/16).
Over the next 10 weeks the Republicans will have 6 more debates, the Democrats 2. Of those 2 Democratic debates one will be in Spanish. Despite the prospect of the Democratic race going into the late spring, the last English language debate the DNC has scheduled is on Feb 11th.
In 2008, the 17 Democratic debates which had ratings were seen by at least 75m viewers. So even though the Democratic debates this cycle have received more viewers per debate, the total viewership of the 6 debates will come in about 10m less than what the Democratic debates achieved in 2008, and only a third of what the Rs are getting this cycle with their better debate approach. Very hard to spin any of this as positive for Democrats, or "maximizing" opportunities.
More evidence this morning confirming the argument we've been making for the past few weeks - the Republican wave has crested, and a new dynamic in election 2010 has taken hold. New Rasmussen and Washington Post polls each show a 7 point swing towards the Democrats in the national Congressional Generic in the past few weeks. As we wrote yesterday this movement tracks similar movement seen in other polls released over the past few days, indicating that the Democrats have made substantial improvement in their position over the past month.
The national media had been a little slow to acknowledge the significance of the dramatic change in the election but has clearly come around. Look for new analyses in the Politico, Reuters, Slate and this video "Fast Fix" piece from Chris Cillizza. John Dickerson's piece in Slate is particularly thoughtful, and it has this passage:
There is a clear understanding now in the political class that things have changed, but the big hedge is still on. In the lead Washington Post story on their new poll, the 7 point Democratic gain was "modest," and the 6 point Republican lead "significant." Not sure how that got by their editor this morning but shows how fundamentally invested much of DC's political class is in the September version of this story which had Democrats losing the House, a wave election and big Republican gains were already "baked in the cake." I am not sure where we will be in November but it is clear now that the election is going through a fundamental late shift, and this new dynamic has become, appropriately, a major topic for discussion now in the national media. I just think most commentators are understating the significance of what is going on.
Two more observations this morning:
- When a new clear dynamic emerges in any election this late in the cycle, it is very hard for that dynamic to be altered or dissipate. In the case of 2010, I think this will prove particularly true. The Democrats have more tools to effect the national environment in the final month. They have a much more powerful closing argument. They have the bully pulpit of the White House, and a charasmatic President who has found his voice in recent weeks on the number one issue for all voters - the economy. The Republicans, on the other hand, have tired and unappealing leaders, have failed to present a compelling election agenda, have fielded far too many fringe candidates, and the country still holds them - accurately - accountable for the mess we are in today. The inherent weakness of the GOP's offering failed to close the deal with the public, and has left the door open for the apparent Democrat revival we are seeing now. Given current trends it is reasonable to conclude that the Democrats could pick up another 3-6 points in the national polls before election day, which would have a significant impact of course on the many close races across the country. One of the shortcomings of many of the current political analyses of this endgame electoral dynamic is the reluctance of the authors to acknowledge that the current trend lines are likely to continue to through election day, and if they do this really is a whole new ball game. No candidate or political party wants to be losing ground - particularly 6 or 7 points - as they head in the final month.
- The current American electorate is unlike any electorate most political observers have ever seen. Democrats went in to the 2010 cycle having completed their strongest electoral performances in over 40 and perhaps even 70 years. Democrats won 52% and 53% of the vote in 2006 and 2008, with 2008 being the best Presidential performance since 1964 and only the 2nd time since 1944 Democrats won more than 50.1% of the national vote in a Presidential election. Simply put more people voted for a Democrat in 2008 than in 44 years. In contrast, the Democrats went into 1994 having only won 43% of the vote in 1992, giving them a very different relationship to the electorate than the current Democrats. In essence the ceiling for Democrats is higher in this midterm than it has been in a very long time, which may help explain why the Democrats are defying conventional wisdom and gaining ground in the end game of 2010.
I am struck that in most national polls the Republican number is that very same 46% they got in 2006 and 2008. Meaning that despite all that has gone on the Republicans have not improved their standing with the American public at all since their wipeout elections in 2006 and 2008. For the Democrats, starting again back at 53%, the question in this end game of 2010 was could they got those who had wandered from them but not yet gone to the GOP to return. And what seems to be happening now is that the Democrats are reclaiming some of that majority vote they received in the last two elections.
So lets do some math here. If the Republicans have peaked at 46%, and the Democrats are somewhere between 43% and 46% and gaining, what do we believe is the most likely outcome in this final month? Can Democrats regain half of their lost 2008/2006 vote, and get their national number up to 48/49% given the Republicans have shown no capacity to grow? Somehow I think this feels like the likely outcome in 2010. We end up with the Democrats even or ahead few points in the Congressional Generic, ahead or even in all regions of the country outside the South, and with a result that will be disapointing to the Republicans who started their victory laps just a little bit too early.
Morning Update - The always sharp John Heilemann cites our analysis in his weekly New York Magazine column, and the equally savvy Mike Tomasky has an interesting riff on all this in The Guardian today.
After a few weeks of writing and discussing some changes we had picked up in the national polls, I think it is clear a new national dynamic has emerged - the Republicans are losing ground, and the Democrats are gaining.
Consider the two charts below. The first is an aggregate of all national polling of the so-called "Congressional Generic Ballot," which asks the simple question "do you intend to vote Democrat or Republican this fall?" In this aggregate, the Republican advantage has gone from 5-6 points to 1 1/2 percentage points in recent weeks. In the independent Gallup survey chart a similar trend can be found, with the GOP losing 6 percentage points in the generic in the last month. That same six point drop can be found in the recent WSJ/MSNBC poll released late last week. In that poll the GOP advantage went from 49-40 to 46-43.
The data now indicates that any talk of a "Republican Wave" needs to be dismissed, and a new theory of the 2010 elections, one which takes into account this late movement towards the Democrats and away from the Republicans, needs to be fashioned.
We've offered some initial thoughts on why this all may be happening in a series of recent essays, which you can find HERE. Also be sure to read this new national Reuters story, which takes an in depth look at this new dynamic.
PM Update - New polling from GOP friendly Rasmussen has found a 7 point net swing to the Democrats in recent weeks. and now has the generic at 45-42.
The new WSJ/MSNBC poll out this morning shows similar movement that we've seen in other polls of late - a dip in the GOP's numbers and a rise for the Democrats. Their likely voter Congressional Generic sample moved from 49-40 for the GOP in August, to 46-43. As I've written elsewhere, what is important here is that it is not just that the Democrats are gaining, it is also that the GOP is dropping. And as anyone in politics knows, you don't want to go into the last 5 weeks of any election as the GOP is entering the home stretch of 2010 - losing ground while your opponent is gaining. These kind of trend lines are hard to reverse at this stage of an election. I have believed for a long time that the election would end this way, for the Democrats have a much stronger closing argument than the GOP.
As we saw yesterday analysts are finding evidence of Democrats gaining ground across the country. Consider that in a slew of Senate races - DE, KY, PA, CO, NV, CA, WA - the Democratic candidate is in much stronger shape than a few weeks ago.
I also find it of interest that the GOP is hovering around 46% in most of the aggregate averages and in the new WSJ/MSNBC poll. This is the same percentage of the vote they received in the last two elections, indicating that despite all the noise the Republican Party is exactly where it was in 2006 and 2008, and those were not good elections for them. As Barack Obama said yesterday if everyone who votes for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 just vote again his party will be fine. Clearly at this stage the same cannot be said for the GOP.
There is now enough evidence of late to indicate that 2010 should no longer be considered a "wave election." Or if it is, then it appears that the GOP wave has crested, and is receding now - a dangerous mental image for a party as unpopular, ideologically divided and as out of touch with every day Americans as the modern GOP.
Was on Fox yesterday talking about all this. Check it out below:
Last week, after a deep look at polls across the country, I wrote a piece, Hope for the Dems? which argued that there signs that the election was beginning to shift away from the GOP and towards the Democrats.
The piece got a lot of play last week, and I called around to some folks who track this stuff to see if they were seeing the same thing. Two of the folks I talked to, Mark Blumenthal and Chris Cillizza, have pieces out today which finds a bit more evidence that things may be improving for the Democrats (you can find them here and here). In my piece last week I lay out why I think this may be happening, so I wont repeat it here. But I do want to offer a few more observations on this remarkable election.
- Pay attention to demography. For over five years NDN has been arguing that a "new politics" was emerging in America, driven by vast changes in our governing agenda, our media and technology and our people. In 2008 President Obama built a new and powerful electoral coalition for the Democrats, the strongest built for center-left politics in over 40 and perhaps even in over 70 years. This new coalition was built around a very different - and continually changing - electorate of the 21st century.
Going all the back to the primary against Hillary Clinton, the electorate began to split - younger for Barack, older for Clinton. This trend continued in the fall election of 2008, where older folks went with McCain, younger for Obama. Younger people are also much more non-white than the aging generations in the US, so the Obama vote was also much more racially mixed than McCains. As a bi-racial man himself Obama was very much the leader of this new much more diverse and younger coalition that really looked like no other majority coalition built in US political history.
In 2010 this trend continues to play out. Older, whiter, more conservative parts of the country - the South, the Rustbelt - are trending a bit more Republican now. Younger, more full of recent immigrants and more racially diverse parts of the country remain pretty strong for the Dems. There appear to be at least five major regions of the country now -
The Northeast - Solid Dem
The Rustbelt - Democratic, but trending GOP
The South - Solid GOP
The Latin Belt (from FL to TX through the SW and CA) - Leaning Dem
The Pacific Coast - Solid Dem
While important, the national poll numbers dont really tell the story of our complex country. For example in this "wave election" the Democrats could very well win the governorships in CA, TX and FL. Harry Reid has come back strong in Nevada, as has Patty Murray in WA. New polls showing Democrats doing well in House races in NM. California in trending Democratic again.
As a rule of thumb I think you should expect the Dems to do a bit better in the younger, more diverse parts of the country this fall, the Republicans a bit better in the older, whiter and more conservative parts of the country. While this may be enough to see significant Republican gains this fall, long term the GOP's current coalition is a slowly melting icecube and cannot sustain them over time.
- The Republicans Have No Closing Argument, the Democrats Have A Good One Available to Them. The arguments the GOP are making now about the Democrats are the same arguments they were making six months and even a year ago when the electorate started moving heavily against the Democrats. So in that sense they have already gotten everything they can out of them in this election. Putting $2 million dollars behind a campaign which argues that Democrats have seen the deficits rise and the economy worsen will not be very effective as voters already know and understand all this. The Democrats, on the other hand, have a potentially potent closing argument they can use in their ads full of things which have been front of mind for voters this past year.
I layed out my sense of this dynamic in a piece I penned for the Huffington Post last week called "The Closing Argument." Essentially I argue that if the Dems close with this narrative - the GOP screwed everything up, the Democrats have started to put things right, the Dems have a smart and good plan for the future which needs more time to work, the Republicans have a bad and reckless plan with ideas already proven to hurt the nation - they can significantly improve their posiition.
To me the one devastating attack against the GOP now open to the Dems is to make clear that the entire GOP economic argument - the single biggest issue in the election right now - is built upon an extraordinary lie. As President Obama pointed out yesterday, the core of the GOP's promise this year is to cut the deficit, and yet not a single GOP candidate running for office in the US can produce a plan which will reduce the deficit even by a penny in the next ten years. When the Republicans say that they will reduce the deficit - and there is no nice way to say this - it is a lie. Adroit Democratic campaigns can and will use this basic truth to weaken sentiment about individual Republicans and the overall Republican economic argument.
So, like many, I am still trying to figure out what is going on in this complicated election. But what I do know is that there is still life left in this baby, and nothing is "baked in the cake."
Both the Real Clear Politics Congressional Generic average and the new Gallup track show similar national trend lines - Dems gaining ground, GOP dropping. Similarly, the Gallup track has Obama's approval rating improving by 10 net percentage points in the past month, from 42/51 to 47/46 (RCP has shown movement despite 2 clear outlier Rasmussen and AP polls).
If these trend lines are true, no one should be suprised. The underlining favorability of the Republican Party is still far below that of the Dems and Obama. This election has never been like 1994 where at this point there had been both a fall of the Dems and a rise in the GOP. The memory of the disasterous GOP reign in the last decade is still too fresh, their leaders still to unreformed, their candidates far too wacky, and their ideas still to reckless for the current GOP to have fully taken advantage of the Democratic underpeformance this past cycle. This election, like all elections, is not like any other election. It has its own contours, its own set of dynamics. Like all elections it is sui generis.
As NDN has been arguing for most of 2010, the real questions in the election were 1) could the Democrats get their huge base to come home and vote 2) could the Dems do a better job at engaging on the main issue of the election, the economy, and better define the GOP as a reckless party? The late movement in this election, despite the truly silly "baked in the cake" arguments we've heard on TV of late, was always likely to be towards the Democrats. This current Congress had done too much right for the summer perceptions of Democratic performance to continue to be as bad as it was. And the underlying strength of the Democratic and Obama brands were just too great for their standing not to improve with some focused recalibration, which has happened now. We dont really now exactly why these things have happened, but I for one believe its because the President has begun to make the choice on the economy much more clear.
Remember that in the last two elections, the Democrats garnered 52 and 53 percent of the national vote. The last time they received such numbers two elections in a row was in the 1930s, meaning that for those covering politics there had not been an environment so Democratic since prior to Reagan's rehabilitation of the GOP, and maybe even all the way back to the 1960s or 1930s. The Democrats started this cycle in a position where if got those who already voted from them in the last two elections to vote for them again they could win a smashing 1934 like victory, bucking historical mid-term trends of parties in historically weaker shape than the 2010 Democrats.
I hope given these polls that the comparisons to 1994 will come to an end. For the GOP this polls should be very worrying. They are now dropping as a national political party 6 weeks before an election. They have no argument where they want to take the country. They have unattractive leaders and far too many fringe candidates. Led by a re-energized President, the Democrats have begun to find their voice, and their numbers are improving.
Underneath all the noise the political terrain of 2010 is changing, and so far this new terrain is far more favorable to the Dems than the Rs. My sense is that Democrats have reclaimed ground they never should have lost in the first place. The real question now is what happens next, how does this election close? If I were a Republican I would not like the charts on Gallup and RCP showing sharp downward movement this close to an election, as they have very few tools now to reverse what could be a significant drop in their standing. For Democrats there is muted but renewed hope.
Update - A new poll by John Zogby released today shows similar movement in both Obama's approval and the Congressional generic. More evidence that these trends are real.
The Beltway is already abuzz this am with a new Gallup poll showing a huge swing towards the Democrats in the Congressional Generic Ballot test, from 47-46 to 49-43. While we don't know if this is a significant shift yet - time and other polls will tell us more in the weeks to come - we do know that such an outcome is perfectly plausible as the Democrats retain a huge Party ID advantage this year, ranging from 7-12 points depending on the poll.
NDN has been arguing all year that despite a drop in Democrat favorability, the structural changes which took place in the electorate in 2006 and 2008 have not abated. Democrats won those two elections with historically large majorities, winning each election by 53-46. Given that the last time the national Democratic Party had won a Presidential election by more than 50.1 percent was 1964, these back to back majorities signaled an end of what we have called "the era of conservative ascendency" and signaled that a new post-conservative age had begun, that a "new politics" had been born. What happened in 2006 and 2008 was a structural shift in the American electorate, making it much more Democratic than it had been since at least the 1960s, and making the political environment different than any strategist, consultant, reporter or pundit had seen in 45 years, and certainly different than virtually any of these professionals had experienced in their adult lifetime.
In late June, I wrote the following in a post called Fighting Conventional Wisdom on Deficits, The Economy and the Strength of the GOP,
Democrats Still Hold a Substantial Lead in Party ID - In each poll, the Democratic Party held a 9 point Party ID advantage over the GOP (45/36 in NBC/Wall Street Journal, 43/34 in Public Policy). 9 points is of course a bigger spread than the actual vote in each of the last two elections, which broke 53% to 46% for the Democrats. In 1994, by comparison, the GOP had a party ID advantage over the Democrats.
What is remarkable about these findings is that the structural shift away from the GOP and towards the Democrats is not showing signs of abating. Looking at the Congressional Generic Ballot (even these days, with Ds and Rs being in the mid 40s) and Obama/Dem approval (mid to high 40s) there is evidence the Democrats have lost some ground since 2008. But there simply is no evidence in either of these polls that the GOP has gained at all, and remains in the same mid 40 percent range - or less - the party achieved in each of its last two losing election performances (Real Clear Politics average of the Generic Congressional Ballot now has the Democrats up a bit, 43/42.6 - if you take out the always GOP biased Rasmussen it is closer to 2 points now).
In fact, a reasonable interpretation of these polls is that the GOP is stuck at a ceiling of 45/46/47, the Dems have dropped to similar terrain, but with Party ID being so strong for the Dems, there is more of a clear path now for the Dems to regain their lost ground than for the GOP to grow beyond their current position. With the GOP now stuck in the mid 40s, a lot of what happens in 2010 will depend on what happens with that 5-8 percent the Democrats have lost - will they come home? Not turn out? Go to the GOP?
It is fair to say from these polls that neither party should be happy with their position 4 1/2 months from the 2010 midterms. The Democrats have lost too much of its recent historic vote, and the GOP has not shown any capacity to take advantage of the Democratic weakness.
What may be happening now is that the Democrats may be in the process of reclaiming their lost vote, something that we have argued is more likely than an unreformed and reactionary GOP taking advantage of the recent Democratic slippage. It is too soon to know if this happening, but certainly if it is there is a data driven explanation for why this shift could be taking place.
We are not suprised that even experienced pundits are having a hard time making sense of the current electorate. It is unlike any electorate that the political class has seen. It is demographically very different from any electorate in American history, and has been, and remains, the most pro-Democratic electorate we've seen in at least 45 years. For the current pundit class this is unfamiliar terrain, and applying old models to a new electorate simply will not work.
For more on this see Mike Hais's recent excellent Data Matters column, Democrats, Not Independents or Republicans, Will Decide Who Wins in 2010 and Beyond.