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Morning Jay: Underestimating Republicans, Newsweek Strikes Again, and Time To Purge!

6:30 AM, Oct 25, 2010 • By JAY COST
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1. Are State Polls Underestimating Republican Strength? Yes, says Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics.  He writes:

Republicans and Democrats are drawing near unanimous support from their partisans, while Democrats are drawing support from 35-40 percent of Independents.

In other words, these pollsters don't disagree on how Republicans, Democrats and Independents are going to cast their votes. Instead, they disagree on how many Republicans, Democrats and Independents are going to cast their vote.

The most relevant question is thus: what mix of Republicans and Democrats are the pollsters finding?  Trende continues:

[I]n every state except West Virginia, the pollsters are showing an electorate that is, on average, 2-3 points more favorable to the Democratic candidate than we'd expect to see in a 2004-type environment. (Incidentally, this is roughly consistent with the difference between the RCP Averages in Virginia and New Jersey in 2009 and the final results.)

Why is 2004 an important year?  It was a year in which both party bases were – to borrow a phrase – “fired up, ready to go.”  In contrast, 2006 and 2008 were years in which Democratic enthusiasm outpaced Republican enthusiasm.  This suggests that Republican strength could be systematically underestimated in these polls.  On average, if you reweight recent polls in the top Senate contests using the 2006 party spreads, a Republican advantage of 0.24 percent expands to 1.38 percent.  Reweight to the 2004 party spreads, and it grows to 2.73 percent.  

On the other hand, some pollsters that don’t make assumptions that ultimately favor Democrats have been getting criticized at establishment media outlets.  In general, it seems to me that polling itself is increasingly becoming politicized this cycle.  This is something to be aware of.

2. 54-40 or Fight!  Bad news, gang.  Newsweek says the Republican rout is off:

Despite doom-saying about Democrats’ chances in the midterms, the latest Newsweek Poll shows that they remain in a close race with Republicans 12 days before Election Day, while the president’s approval ratings have climbed sharply. The poll finds that 48 percent of registered voters would be more likely to vote for Democrats, compared with 42 percent who lean Republican... President Obama’s approval ratings have jumped substantially, crossing the magic halfway threshold to 54 percent, up from 48 percent in late September, while the portion of respondents who disapprove of the president dropped to 40 percent… However, his approval rating, which is notably higher than many recent polls of the president’s popularity, may be evidence of a closing “enthusiasm gap” more than a sea change in voter attitudes, and may not substantially affect Democrats’ fortunes come Election Day.  In 1994, NEWSWEEK Polls showed a similar steep climb in President Clinton’s approval between late September and late October, but Democrats still suffered a rout in the midterms. (Emphasis Mine)

Wow-wee!  Somebody better tell the president, as he is visiting deep blue Rhode Island today.  He needs to start pressing into conservative territory -- the GOP might be set to lose seats!

In all seriousness, though, look again at Obama’s job approval in Newsweek: 54-40.  Meanwhile, the average of the other polls of adults in the RealClearPolitics average shows President Obama’s job approval slightly under 45 percent.  It is possible that random variation alone could produce this Newsweek result, but it is quite unlikely.  This poll is not just an outlier.  It is an outlier among outliers. 

3. Blame the Blue Dogs?  Ari Berman of The Nation takes to the pages of the New York Times to urge a purge:

Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus. It’s a sentiment that even Mr. Dean now echoes. “Having a big, open-tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done,” he said. Since the passage of health care reform, few major bills have passed the Senate. Although the Democrats have a 59-vote majority, party leaders can barely find the votes for something as benign as extending unemployment benefits.

A smaller majority, minus the intraparty feuding, could benefit Democrats in two ways: first, it could enable them to devise cleaner pieces of legislation, without blatantly trading pork for votes as they did with the deals that helped sour the public on the health care bill. (As a corollary, the narrative of “Democratic infighting” would also diminish.)

Franklin Roosevelt tried to orchestrate a purge of conservative Southern Democrats in the 1930s, but he waited until after his triumph in 1936, when the Democratic congressional caucus expanded to an unprecedented size.  The Democrats are set to go from a majority to a minority this cycle, which seems to me to be the exact wrong time to start booting the moderates who manage to survive.

The math is pretty straightforward, and it doesn’t favor Berman’s argument.  The liberals’ biggest problem is the Senate, where small states hold the balance of power.  In 2000, a year in which the parties were split nationwide, George W. Bush won a majority of states.  In 2004, he won a super majority, 30 out of 50 states.  Thus, on average, a Democratic majority in the Senate will depend upon Democratic senators who can appeal to Republican presidential voters.  The same is true in the House of Representatives, by the way.  Bush and Gore split the presidential vote in 2000, but Bush won 240 of 435 districts.  He won 255 districts in 2004.  If Berman wants to drill the Democratic caucus down to members who can reliably vote the liberal line, he’ll have fewer than 200 representatives and 40 senators on his side.

This strikes me as more about affixing blame for the Democratic party’s impending defeat than forging a path forward for the left. The consistent theme I have read from liberals is that their problem is that they have not been partisan or liberal enough. That, as well as the occasional blame for a lack of a good “narrative,” accounts for the Democratic party’s poor position. Both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, accept and promote what we might call “creation myths,” or stories that account for the standing of both sides over time. Usually, these stories are at most half true – and right now the story the left seems to be telling itself is less than that.

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