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Morning Jay: Goodbye to the Clinton Majority, Those Lucky Dems, and More!

6:30 AM, Sep 24, 2010 • By JAY COST
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1. Goodbye To The Clinton Majority?  Recently, Franklin & Marshall College put out a poll of Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, in the Philadelphia suburbs, that shows incumbent Democrat Patrick Murphy down an eye-popping 14 points to his Republican challenger, former Republican representative Mike Fitzpatrick.

What explains this?

All the way back in November 2009, Sean Trende looked at the off-year election returns, and noticed a fascinating pattern in New Jersey and Virginia: the Clinton majority was falling apart:

Clinton inherited a coalition consisting of minorities, liberals, urban voters, and a decent remnant of Jacksonian voters in the Ohio River Valley and the South, who still preferred a moderate-to-conservative Democrat to a Republican. This coalition became a majority coalition when Clinton used a combination of fiscal conservatism and social moderation to bring suburban voters on board. This was a huge innovation for Democrats; suburbs like Nassau County, NY, Orange County, CA and Fairfax County, VA had fueled the rise of the Republican parties in those states. Clinton moved them substantially toward his side. This coalition allowed him to win by eight points in 1996; absent Perot and a last-minute fundraising scandal, he probably would have won by more.

Trende’s article is over a year old, but it is well worth reading again in full.  It points to an essential point about this midterm.  I suspect that when the dust settles, smart commentators will draw two conclusions about the 2010 congressional elections. The first is that the Democrats were badly mistaken when they interpreted the 2008 election as a realignment (although Trende and I warned them to temper their enthusiasm!).  It was instead the West and the Midwest doing what they have long done, swinging one way or the other.  They swung heavily to the Democrats in 2008, now they are set to swing heavily to the GOP in 2010.

The second will acknowledge this phenomenon that Trende discovered nearly a year ago.  Those upscale, socially moderate, fiscally conservative suburban voters in the wealthier cities are fleeing the Democratic coalition. That is an essential part of the story of how Deeds was gobsmacked in Virginia last year, why Kirsten Gillibrand in New York has a fight on her hands (and according to SurveyUSA trails by twelve points in the NYC suburbs!), why Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania is so far behind, and why Patrick Murphy is down by a baker’s-dozen-plus-one in independent polling.  And if this pattern does indeed hold in the big urban centers in the East, it should also manifest itself in the Chicago suburbs, and be enough to make Mark Kirk the next senator from Illinois.

The Clinton coalition was a political winner, for a while.  But liberal Democrats were none too pleased with Clinton’s style of governance. Al Gore had to fend off a primary challenge from Bill Bradley, then Ralph Nader played spoiler, blasting Gore and George W. Bush as "Tweedledee and Tweedledum," then finally the left rebuked Hillary Clinton in 2008.  

Will President Obama and his Democratic allies adapt this time around?  That remains to be seen. Staying the course might leave him with little more than the McGovern coalition, so the demands of electoral victory seem to require some genuine movement toward the center. But on the other hand, Obama is in office in part because of the McGovern wing of the party; all those liberals who hated Clintonian triangulation finally got the last laugh, triumphantly nominating him amid shouts of "Yes We Can!" What's more, I suspect that President Obama actually believes he is in the political center, that he doesn't see all the strawman nonsense as strawman nonsense.  He looks over his left shoulder and really sees "the professional left," then looks over his right shoulder and really sees "dangerous" Tea Party "extremists."  So, I don't know...

2. The Democrats’ Lucky Break In The Senate.  Just about everybody now recognizes that 2010 is going to be a political wave election.  It looks very likely that the Democrats are going to lose the most seats in the Midwest, where Gallup has the president’s job approval at just 43 percent.  President Obama is also very weak in the South – Gallup has him at just 39 percent - but Republican gains will be muted there because the GOP is already dominant in Dixie.  Interestingly, Gallup has president Obama’s job approval at 47 percent in the West, but he is generally thought to be above 50 percent in the more populous Pacific West (especially California), which means he must be doing terribly in the Mountain West states.

The president’s poor standing in these three regions – the Midwest, the South, and the Mountain West – should be sufficient to tip the House to the Republicans, as this is where the battle for Congress is usually fought.  But the Democrats are very lucky in the Senate because so many of their senators from this region are not up this cycle.

Look at the terrible position in which Russ Feingold finds himself – that is a sign that pretty much any Democratic incumbent from the Midwest would find himself in grave danger this cycle, regardless of how well she or he has performed in office.  Similarly, the pathetic condition of the Blanche Lincoln campaign in Arkansas is a signal that any Southern Democrat would also be in jeopardy.  Ditto the paltry poll positions of Michael Bennet in Colorado and Harry Reid in Nevada, which point to Democratic doldrums throughout the Rockies.

But only a handful of these Democrats are up this cycle.  Indeed, I count a whopping twenty-four Senate Democrats in seats in the South, the Midwest or Mountain West who are not up for reelection in 2010.   Instead, the Democrats are mostly defending seats in the Northeast and Pacific West, where their position remains strong.  Those lucky Democrats get to defend seats in Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington in the Pacific West; then Maryland, Delaware, New York (twice!), Connecticut and Vermont in the Northeast.  Really, they could not have been more fortunate.  The fact that they are struggling to lock down several of these states – and, indeed, that the GOP might win a handful of them – is a testimony to just how brutal the national political climate is for the Democrats this year.  If the 2012 class of Senate seats were up this cycle, pundits would have written off the Senate months ago.  

3. A Tale of Two Polls.  Earlier this week, both SurveyUSA and Siena were in the field in New York state, polling the Senate race.  SurveyUSA found a one-point race, with Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand ahead of Joe DioGuardi by just one point, 45-44.  Meanwhile, Siena found her running away with things, ahead 57-31.

Two reputable polling outfits in the field at the same time.  What gives?

Most likely answer: Siena polled registered voters while SurveyUSA polled likely voters.  That probably does not explain all of the differences, but it accounts for a lot of it. 

I mention this not simply because it’s an interesting polling deviation in an important state.  I also point it out to remind readers that most of the generic ballot numbers are still of nationwide registered voters, which are probably over-reporting Democratic strength just as the Siena poll is.  In your average midterm year, there is going to be a notable difference in the Democratic position in registered voter polls versus likely voter polls, but it is probably greater this year because Republicans are much more enthusiastic about voting. 

In years with high Republican enthusiasm – such as 1994 and 2004 – what we have seen is that the GOP and the Democrats pull even in terms of relative strength in the electorate.  Both groups of partisans break heavily for their respective sides, and what that ultimately means is that independents decide the outcome. Right now, Gallup has President Obama at just 40 percent approval among independents, which is about the same percentage that voted Democratic in 1994.

Polls of registered voters are going to mask this phenomenon because of their over-sampling of Democrats.  Registered voting polls make a lot of sense earlier in the cycle because it is unclear who is going to vote and who isn’t.  But we’re now 40 days out from the midterm, and so from this point they should be taken with a grain of salt.

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