The controversy surrounding Todd Akin’s infamous comments that victims of “legitimate rape” seldom become pregnant is in a holding pattern: Akin may stay in the race against Senator Claire McCaskill, or he might pull out. It all depends on poll results and the fundraising totals in the next couple weeks. If he does exit the race, he has until September 25 to drop out and have the Republican party petition a court to replace him on the ballot.
Akin himself didn’t go to the GOP convention in Tampa, and he resumed TV ads against McCaskill today. His aides have touted a Public Policy Polling survey in which he only trails McCaskill by 45 percent to 44 percent.
Many social conservatives resent the treatment Akin was given. He was virtually ordered by national-party operatives to give up the nomination, and his donors were called and told to stop giving. Mike Huckabee, who was a key factor in Akin’s come-from-behind primary win, is also peeved at what he considers a disturbing overreaction by the party establishment that’s indicative of how little they care about social conservatives. He has told delegates here that he hasn’t spoken to Akin in a week, but he isn’t calling for him to exit the race. Grassroots favorite Newt Gingrich, whose former spokesman Rick Tyler joined Team Akin today, cautioned against party leaders piling on Akin’s “stupid” comment. He called the furious reaction to Akin’s comments a “good example of why the power structure in Washington should sometimes take a deep breath.”
The polls, on which both critics and defenders of Akin rely, are mixed. A new survey by PPP puts Akin behind but within the margin of error; the company’s director explained that “people didn’t like what Akin said, but that doesn’t change the fact that McCaskill is a deeply unpopular incumbent. We found that Akin’s comments weren’t enough to make Republicans who hate McCaskill actually decide to vote for her.”
But other polls look different: A new Rasmussen survey finds McCaskill now ahead by ten points, finding that “most Missouri Republicans [want] Akin to quit the race while most Missouri Democrats want him to stay.” Democrats, who desperately want Akin in the race, dismissed the poll. McCaskill herself even tweeted, “Rasmussen poll made me laugh out loud. If anyone believes that, I just turned 29. Sneaky stuff.”
Rasmussen told me he is used to campaigns’ spinning his numbers, but he stands by his view that the number of GOP voters who want Akin to quit is large and that no survey so far “can factor in what Democrats can do to Akin with TV advertising.”
Republican professionals I talked to at the convention argue that Akin hasn’t collapsed, but only because Missouri has become such a strong Republican state. Voters there back a generic Republican over a generic Democrat by 47 percent to 41 percent. PPP found that McCaskill’s disapproval rating is a sky-high 55 percent. Pollster Glen Bolger says he has seen this kind of Senate race before, having polled Ollie North against unpopular Virginia incumbent Democrat Chuck Robb in 1994. Robb was able to win a very narrow plurality victory due to North’s simply being too controversial. “McCaskill is Chuck Robb and will improve because of the comparison to Akin,” Bolger concludes. “She may be weaker, but he’s stuck. . . . The road to control of the Senate is much easier if it includes Missouri.”
But the Akin affair is about more than just a Senate race. It’s about the unfair but real double standard in American politics — that Republicans pay a far higher price for stupid comments. Joe Biden is hardly paying any price for having said Republicans want to put black Americans “back in chains.”
Thus Todd Akin, a previously unknown congressman from suburban St. Louis, has become a whipping boy for the media and liberals everywhere. The Democratic convention next week will no doubt include plenty of Akin jibes, denunciations, and even jokes. The Akin-outrage industry will gear up again. It is already massive. One media analytics company found that, the day before Akin’s infamous comments, he had some 25,000 Internet and Twitter mentions to his name. Within a few days, he topped 1.5 billion — that’s not a typo — mentions, and it’s still growing.
Todd Akin is right not to have given in immediately to the bullying of his party’s establishment he received after his remarks. There is even a chance he could battle his way to victory against McCaskill, campaigning as a truly unbought and unbossed outsider. In my conversations with Akin, I have found him to be no Neanderthal and much more thoughtful than his newly-minted reputation. But it is undeniable how much his comments will be used to attack Republicans next week at the Democratic convention. The controversy has gone way beyond Todd Akin, and threatens to distract from the important work of defeating Barack Obama this November.
But here’s hoping that eventually Akin will, like the sober engineer he is, analyze the data and conclude that his race is now about something bigger than a contest between two candidates. It’s demonstrated the power of an enduring image or statement to overshadow an entire campaign. That may not be fair or appropriate, but it’s the reality. There isn’t much we can do about that, but we can do something to repudiate liberalism and ensure Barack Obama leaves office. Unfortunately, Todd Akin’s continued presence in the race makes that job more difficult than it should be.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO and a co-author of the newly released Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk (Encounter Books).