Almost daily polls are now being made available in the U.S. senate races slated for November, 2010. Without questioning the relative accuracy of any one of them, I say they should be read with considerable caution. Serious readers of these polls, available on numerous national political websites and blogs, have already witnessed substantial volatility in many of them. For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been trailing badly in his polls for months, and now a poll appears with him ahead. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has been ahead for months, and now polls appear with her trailing. Richard Blumenthal was way ahead initially (after incumbent Chris Dodd decided not to run), then dipped after a scandal, but now is way ahead again. Joe Sestak won the Democratic primary against Arlen Spector, and then went several points ahead in the polls against his Republican opponent, Pat Toomey. Now he is several points behind again.
What does this all mean?
The answer is multifaceted, but there are some irreversible realities of the 2010 senate elections. First, the mid-term elections have been successfully nationalized by both the Republicans and, involuntarily, by President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. This, so far, works heavily in favor of the Republicans, especially since the legislative agenda of the Democratic administration has been mostly quite unpopular with the electorate as a whole. This caused a number of long-time incumbent Democratic senators to decided not to run for re-election this year (Dodd in CT, Dorgan in ND, et al) and otherwise strong Democrats (e.g., Beau Biden in DE) to decided not to run for open seats. Normally secure Democratic incumbents (Boxer in CA, Murray in WA, Feingold in WI, Lincoln in AR, et al) are also in trouble. Most open seats (OH, NH, FL, IL, UT and CO) now lean to the Republicans, or would certainly go that way if the nationalized election trends continue.
As I wrote in this column last January, there were a total of 12 senate seats the GOP might pick up. Since that time, two seats unexpectedly became open. One was actually won by a Republican, Scott Brown, in Massachusetts, and another has just opened up in West Virginia with the death of Democrat Robert Byrd. The latter will be filled with a short-term appointment, and popular Democratic Governor Joe Manchin almost certainly run this autumn. GOP Congresswoman Shelley Moore Caputo may or may not run, but the Democrat would now be favored.
Yet West Virginia demonstrates the problem the Democrats face this year with a nationalized election. If Moore Caputo or whomever the GOP picks to run this year can make the senate election about President Obama’s popularity (he is not popular currently in this state), even Manchin could be in trouble. And no matter what, West Virginia has become an unexpected and another state the national Democratic senate committee has to defend with money and time in a negative year.
Senate and House elections that become nationalized generally produce voter over-reactions in November. In 2006, there were about eight close senate elections in which there were GOP incumbents. All the Republicans had to do was win one of them to keep control. They lost every one of them, albeit some by very small margins. The same story was told in other past mid-year elections that became nationalized over the president’s and majority party’s policies.
In the inevitable lull of summer, poll numbers often do a bit of a dance of their own. They also tend to revert to local issues and personalities. Only after Labor Day, and the final campaigns get underway, do the polls begin to tell us how the voters really feel.
Right now, the Republicans seem assured, barring unforeseen events, of picking up 5-7 U.S. senate seats. But if the nationalized election continues to favor the GOP, and President Obama continues to push for unpopular policies and legislation, that number grows to 10-13 seats. The latter numbers seemed impossible last January when I first suggested them. Now they seem realistic if present trends continue.
But current polls, many of which are not objective, large enough to be accurate, or are just plain propaganda, indicate the former number.
During the primary season, the emergence of the grass roots Tea Party appeared, and some of their candidates won. The impact of this movement was to make the Republican message more conservative and clearer for November, a trend which, I believe, has generally (but not in all cases) helped the Republicans.
Let’s revisit this subject in September and October. Meanwhile, I again urge readers not to call 9-1-1 over the possibility of change of control of the next U.S. senate.