Why Sharron Angle stands a better chance of victory than Christine O'Donnell.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 17 2010 1:12 PM

The Rules of Ridicule

Why Sharron Angle stands a better chance of victory than Christine O'Donnell.

Harry Reid. Click image to expand.
Can Sharron Angle defeat Harry Reid?

Each week until the election, I'm posting some of the questions I'm trying to answer based on news of the week or something that's come up in my reporting. In the following weeks, I'll try to answer some of these questions. Feel free to weigh in with answers—or with more political questions—at slatepolitics@gmail.com or in the comments section below. Here are this week's questions:

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Are voters confused? For a while now, there has been a seeming disconnect in the polls. In the most recent CBS News poll we see it again, more voters say they have an unfavorable view of Republicans (58 percent) than of Democrats (56 percent), and more disapprove of GOP policies (68 percent) than of Democratic ones (58 percent). On key questions about the economy, they also like Democratic policies better than Republican policies. For example, when CBS asked which party was better at helping small business, respondents preferred the Democrats 49 percent to 41 percent. Asked about creating new jobs the response was 44 percent to 38 percent in favor of Democrats.

Yet when you ask people if they will be voting for the Republican over the Democrat, they say yes. The margin is only two points (40 percent to 38 percent), but given those other numbers, wouldn't you expect people to favor Democrats?

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I am in search of explanations and analogies. Campaign strategists from both parties tell me this disconnect is a sign that voters want not some radical shift but a brake on the Democrats in Congress. One Democratic strategist, for example, suggested that a Republican could run an ad with this tag line: "I'm OK with the president, and when he's right I'll support him. But sometimes he and the Democrats in Congress just go too far and spend too much."

Pollsters offer a few theories. The first is that the generic ballot question—which asks people whether they would prefer the Republican or the Democrat—is wacky, sometimes showing parity between the parties, other times showing a big Republican advantage.

The main argument I hear is that the economy so irritates people they want to punish the people in Washington. They want to try a different route—any route—even if that route leads them down a path they say they don't want. That desire overwhelms their other views about parties or the specific policies of those parties.

So for the moment I've settled on this analogy: You're a long-haul trucker on the highway, and you're hungry. You wish you'd eaten a good healthy meal, but those are time-consuming and expensive. You see a choice at the next exit: McDonald's or Burger King. You're not thrilled about either, but in general you prefer McDonald's to Burger King and, if asked, you'd probably agree that you like every comparable menu item (fries, burger, drink, Happy Meal toy) better at McDonald's than at Burger King. But you've eaten at McDonald's for eight straight days. So, you go to Burger King.

Is it time to start declaring races over? With just more than seven weeks to go until Election Day, we're going to start seeing races move out of reach for certain candidates. The two parties will stop spending money on their advertising and organizing in some districts so that those resources can be used in other races. For a while, we've been in a twilight period where a candidate appears to be a lost cause yet national party leaders make robust claims that they haven't given up.

Most of the triage has happened on the Democratic side because this is a bad year for Democrats. (Though John Hickenlooper in the Colorado governor's race is a Democratic race that seems over.) It looks like the Democrats are going to have to start making some tough choices in Ohio. John Kasich, the Republican candidate for governor, is up over his Democratic challenger by 10 points in an average of the polls. Rob Portman, the Republican candidate for Senate, is up over his challenger by the same amount. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, both men were up by almost 20. I asked a Democratic official involved in the Senate race if it was over. This is someone who could make you believe the Washington Nationals still have a chance to win the pennant. "It's over," is what I got.

The Florida Senate race might be heading into the win category for the GOP too. Republican strategists involved in that race, some of whom are sympathetic to independent candidate and current Gov. Charlie Crist, said that after the Democrats held their primary, Republican candidate Marco Rubio would start to take off. Democrats who had flirted with Crist would leave him for the official party nominee, Kendrick Meek. That may be what's  happening. In July and early August, Crist was up in the polls. Since the late August Democratic primary, Rubio has been ahead. He now leads by 10 points in the average of the polls.

How much ridicule can one candidate take?  During my reporting about Christine O'Donnell's victory in Delaware, I was reminded of the early days after Sharron Angle's victory in Nevada. Democrats were happy to have an extreme candidate who wanted to phase out Social Security (she now favors privatization), abolish the Department of Education, and flirted with calling for armed resistance. But since mid-July, Angle has stayed even with Harry Reid.

Why hasn't she fallen through the basement? Does this tell us anything about what will happen to O'Donnell? Yes and no. Angle did fall quite a bit after her introduction to voters in early June, and she's not rising. The reason Reid is not ahead is that he is not well-liked and represents an unpopular party. But Delaware, if I may be allowed to state the obvious, is not Nevada. The electorate leans toward the Democrats, and the Democratic candidate Chris Coons is nowhere near as damaged as Reid. But what we can say, perhaps, about Delaware is that with an enthusiastic conservative base and Democrats who are less than thrilled with their candidate, there's only so far a Republican nominee can fall—no matter how many of her gaffes and blunders are posted on YouTube.

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