Examining the Democratic claim that the race is tightening.
Fox News alerts regularly herald the latest tsunami warnings, and the one today was for Okinawa, Japan. (Thankfully, nothing came of it.) I've gotten so many of these false alarms that each new warning now seems like assurance that there's nothing to worry about. Democrats would like that analogy to describe this election year: Fox-fomented media hype about a big wave that never comes.
For the last several weeks, various Democrats have been arguing that their efforts to motivate their voters have been paying off. A slow-to-stir president is finally making a case about the dangers of Republican control of Congress. Polls are improving both nationally and in specific races. Today, Democrats announced that they'd raised $16 million this last quarter, their best haul in years.
But what does it all mean? First, don't put away the foul-weather gear. There will be a wave. Republicans will pick up seats in the House and Senate. What's at issue is the size of the swell (or amplitude, if you've been thinking of the wave in mathematical terms). It has gotten smaller. Even Republicans admit this. This was expected. The question is whether Democrats are "coming home" in a way that will continue, reducing losses far more than expected.
At this stage of a campaign, the losing side always comes up with an exciting theory. (In 2008, the McCain campaign had one.) Its purpose is psychological as well as tactical. People don't like to lose, and look for hope in the smallest signs, such as the number of bumper stickers in a parking lot. And politics is unpredictable enough—and this year has been plenty crazy—that they have grounds for their hope. Plus, pundits and political strategists are often wrong.
Even if Democrats know how bad things are, there's a tactical reason to pretend a rally is on. It's a conjuring trick. It might actually energize everyone to rally for the team. That's why various partisan columnists, strategists, and hope-mongers have heralded President Obama's return to the campaign mode every week for the last several months. Today, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer highlighted the president's recent speech at the University of Wisconsin. "We have seen, I think—that we are beginning to make up the enthusiasm gap," Pfeiffer said on a conference call with reporters. "We are making progress every day."
There is actual evidence to back up the hope. National polls have all been trending back towards Democrats. When voters were asked whether they would vote for a Democrat or a Republican, the GOP had a steady lead over the last two months in an average of the polls. Now the two parties are almost tied. The Gallup poll shows the same narrowing, as does the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Democrats usually discount Rasmussen polls as biased for the GOP, but even Rasmussen shows a nine-point Democratic surge. "There is life left in this baby," says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network, who has been arguing the case for a reappraisal of the election for weeks.
Democrats also see their ground game paying off. In Ohio, organizers point to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll. By two-to-one, more respondents said they had been contacted by a Democratic Party volunteer than by a Republican one. Because the Obama ground game has been in operation for three years, in many cases these contacts are from familiar voices—a key in turning a contact into an actual vote.
This ground game helps explain why Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, is now tied with his opponent in recent polls, Republican John Kasich. (Polls had shown a double-digit margin.) The power of the base was also demonstrated in the party's fundraising totals. As theHotline pointed out, $16 million is the DNC's largest month since 2002.