The last several weeks have not been good for Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock of Indiana. The two-term state treasurer, who beat six-term incumbent Senator Dick Lugar in the GOP primary in May, has fallen back in the polls against his Democratic opponent, Congressman Joe Donnelly. A recent poll, from Brian Howey and Depauw University, showed an 11-point lead for Donnelly.
Presumably, this drop stems from Mourdock’s response to a question at an October 23 debate about his position on abortion. Mourdock opposes abortion in all instances except for when the life of the mother is at risk, and when explaining his opposition to aborting pregnancies that occur as a result of rape, he said the following: “I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize, life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
The state and national media pounced on the statement, likening it to Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s bizarre assertion in a debate that women cannot become pregnant from rape.
But despite the media narrative and the Howey/DePauw poll, Mourdock still has a chance of winning the seat, for a few of reasons:
1. Joe Donnelly does not actually lead by 11 points.
On Friday, the Mourdock campaign released its own internal poll, from Republican pollster John McLaughlin, which shows Mourdock up 2 points over Donnelly, 46 percent to 44 percent, with the Libertarian candidate polling at 3 percent. This is probably an overconfident assessment, but if so, then the Howey/DePauw poll could be erring in the opposite direction by giving Donnelly an 11-point advantage, 47 percent to 36 percent. In September, the same poll found a 2-point lead for Donnelly, while Rasmussen found a 5-point lead for Mourdock a few weeks later.
There’s been scant polling in this race, but before Mourdock’s debate flap, the race remained quiet. And in a year where Indiana is leaning Republican (Mitt Romney is ahead and Republican Mike Pence is expected to win the governor’s race), it’s more likely Mourdock had a small lead throughout the summer and most of the fall. Rasmussen’s most recent poll, which finds Donnelly ahead by 3 points, may be a more accurate reflection of where the race stands now.
2. Mitt Romney is winning Indiana decisively.
Romney could win the Hoosier State big; the Real Clear Politics average shows an 9.5-point advantage for the GOP presidential hopeful. This, of course, doesn’t mean Mourdock can simply ride on Romney’s coattails. After all, Obama won Indiana in 2008 even as the state reelected Republican governor Mitch Daniels in the same year. Hoosiers have split their ballots in the past and may very well do so again in 2012.
But Romney’s expected margin suggests the Howey/DePauw poll is off the mark. The poll gave Romney a 10-point lead over Obama, 51 percent to 41 percent. Fifty-one percent for Romney but only 36 percent for Mourdock? That’s a 15-point difference for two candidates of the same party. It stands to reason that either Romney is faring worse than Howey/DePauw suggests—a possibility that conflicts with most other presidential polls in Indiana—or Mourdock is faring better. Again, the Rasmussen poll, which shows 45 percent for Donnelly and 42 percent for Mourdock, makes more sense within the context of the presidential election.
3. Richard Mourdock is not Todd Akin.
Hoosiers likely recognize that, despite the media’s best efforts to draw comparisons, Mourdock’s comments about abortion and rape are not similar to what Akin said in Missouri. Mourdock holds perhaps an unpopular position on abortion—most Republicans, and most Americans, believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape. But Mourdock offered a reasonable, logical defense: If all life begins at conception, then that includes babies conceived by rape, and so those lives ought to receive protection. And furthermore, if God creates all life, that includes life created as a result of rape. What God “intended,” in Mourdock’s words, was the life, not the rape.
Akin, on the other hand, was espousing an unreasoned, unscientific myth that rape cannot, biologically, result in pregnancy—that women’s bodies “have a way of shutting that whole thing down.” This is an unproven claim that has no grounding in science. The similarities between these sentiments and Mourdock’s are superficial; both have broadly to do with rape and pregnancy, but share nothing else in common.
In this regard, though, Donnelly and Democrats may have overplayed their hand. A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee TV ad running in Indiana replays Mourdock’s comments before a voiceover paraphrases them as, “God intended that a woman be raped and become pregnant.” And Donnelly himself said in a statement that Mourdock believes God intends for rape to happen to women. It’s a pretty uncharitable interpretation of Mourdock’s statement, and it could end up backfiring.
(It’s worth noting, too, that even Todd Akin isn’t Todd Akin. Like Mourdock, Akin could end up winning his race against Democrat Claire McCaskill. He’s 5 points down, according to Real Clear Politics, which means he, too, may still have chance to win his race.)
At this point, Donnelly leads the race in Indiana, but it's still a toss-up. That’s not a position of strength for Mourdock, but it doesn’t mean he’s bound to lose, either.