Politics & Policy

Election-watching with Jay Cost

NRO picks the brain of a professional horseracer.

Jay Cost is a professional horseracer, politically speaking, so he’s exactly who you want to be talking to on Election Day. National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez asks Cost, a staff writer for The Weekly Standard, about the midterms.

LOPEZ: Why does this generic-ballot talk matter?

COST: It gives us a good sense of the partisan orientation of the electorate. The Gallup organization has been doing generic-ballot polling since the 1950s, and their final generic-ballot number has proven to be extremely accurate.

LOPEZ: So it’s blowout time for the GOP?

COST: In all likelihood. Consider the following: The pre-election ABC News/Washington Post poll came back with the Republicans +4. Good, but not great. But in 1994, it came back with Democrats +2! We’re seeing that in poll after poll — something between six and nine points bigger than 1994.

LOPEZ: However big the win, what’s the message to the GOP? What’s the mandate?

COST: Grow the economy, grow the economy, grow the economy. The electorate has handed the Republican party an enormous opportunity to get back to its historic roots and what I would call the McKinley-Coolidge-Reagan wing of the party — a chance to build a broad electoral coalition based upon conservative economic ideas that deliver prosperity. That’s the No. 1 mandate.

Incidentally, that was Obama’s mandate in 2008, but he took it to be that he was the next Franklin Roosevelt. I don’t know why he thought this, considering he won only 52.9 percent of the vote, which is less than George H. W. Bush did. Obama pretended he was there to implement New Deal Mach 2, and that’s a big reason the GOP is where it is right now.

LOPEZ: The supposed dean of political reporting in Nevada has called the Reid–Angle Senate race for Reid. Should I be worried?

COST: No. There’s been a lot of heat in Nevada the last few days, but very little light. Example: All the talk about how the Democrats should be pleased with the early-voting numbers is based on incomplete data and faulty comparisons. In reality, the early-voting numbers look good for the GOP.

LOPEZ: Lisa Murkowski — seriously?

COST: We’ll see. Write-in campaigns are easier said than done. Just ask Rep. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. Oh, wait . . .

LOPEZ: Biggest surprise you’re expecting?

COST: Dennis Kucinich will lose.

LOPEZ: Hardest loss for Democrats? Can that even be narrowed down?

COST: Probably Harry Reid, another Senate majority leader who loses in large part because he’s identified with the majority party. Democrats should take that as a sign about the limits of the liberal program’s appeal, but they probably won’t.

LOPEZ: Speaking of hard losses, how did Russ Feingold fall so behind?

COST: How? He’s up for reelection in the Midwest in 2010! I doubt very much the Democrats will win any gubernatorial or senatorial contests in the Midwest. Plus, Feingold is probably to the left of today’s Wisconsin. It might be the birthplace of LaFollette progressivism, but even so, George W. Bush fell just 11,000 votes short in 2004. I’d say Wisconsin is about a D+2 state and Feingold is more like a D+15 senator.

LOPEZ: Does the Tea Party have staying power?

COST: I’m not sure. I don’t know what to make of the Tea Party. What is it? It’s not an organization like the AARP or the AFL-CIO. There are no costs to claiming to be a member. It’s not even like a political party, where you signal to the state that you belong to it. You can wake up in the morning as a tea-partier and go to sleep at night as a non-tea-partier. My feeling is that “Tea Party” has really been a way for fiscal conservatives to communicate with each other.

They’ve had to do that because the word “Republican” has been run through the mud. If one fiscal conservative says to another, “I’m a Republican!” that doesn’t convey much information anymore. But say, “I’m a tea partier,” and that is packed with information.

So my feeling is that if the Republicans in Congress redeem themselves over the next two years, fiscal conservatives will once again feel all right calling themselves Republicans, and the “Tea Party” label will fade. That would be a good thing, as it means that they have regained control over the Republican party.

LOPEZ: What will you be watching for tonight as returns come in?

COST: Indiana comes in first tomorrow night, so my early race to watch (beyond the Indiana 2nd, 8th, and 9th districts) is IN-1. It’s a D+8 district that Pete Visclosky is not going to lose, but if it’s around 55 percent, that will be a sign that something is brewing.

The Indiana 1st is basically Gary and a few nearby rural counties. Gary is heavily Democratic and the rural counties are heavily Republican. If Gary doesn’t turn out and the rural counties do, it’ll make for a (relatively) close race.

Also important here is that the GOP candidate has raised just $10,000. Politics1.com calls him a “carpenter and frequent candidate.” People who vote for him are not doing so because they know him, but because they are either (a) Republican or (b) really, really angry at the Democrats.

LOPEZ: Is election night like Christmas Day for you?

COST: It’s like Christmas with Charlie Manson! It’s crazy.

LOPEZ: How did you get into this business of horseracing?

COST: In 2004, I got tired of all the spin coming from the usual mainstream media outlets. We’re hearing a lot of the same thing this year: “The Dems are beating the GOP in the ground game!” “Polls are undercounting Democratic cell-phone voters!” “The youth vote will surprise everybody!” I got tired of yelling at the TV and started to blog, as an outlet. I’m quantitatively inclined, so I started digging through the voting records and the polling to offer pushback on the MSM spin. It took off, I suppose, because I had questions that I wanted to answer for myself, and it turned out that readers were interested in the answers, too.

LOPEZ: Folks are already looking at the next election. I think it’s a silly game, but let me ask anyway: Who comes out of this looking the best on the GOP side?

COST: Ultimately, Republicans need to look at 2012 as an opportunity to rebuild fully that McKinley-Coolidge-Reagan-style coalition. For that, I think they need to look to somebody who articulates conservative principles but has broad appeal. I like three potential candidates, and wish all three would run: Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Pence. Mitch Daniels is my Number One at this point, with a bullet.

In terms of the horserace, everything depends on whether Sarah Palin runs. If she does, there will be a mad scramble among the rest of the candidates to be “the Anti-Palin.” And I think ultimately the 2012 nominee is that person.

LOPEZ: Will Obama get a primary challenge?

COST: If it looks like he will lose, yes. The Democrats are way too divided internally to unite behind somebody who looks like a loser. I don’t think it will be Hillary Clinton, but somebody could put together a peculiar left-right coalition against Obama. Suppose Howard Dean runs, claiming to be the representative of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” He could get the liberals to back him, and he might also get those conservative Democrats who gave Obama such a headache in the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia primaries.

Plus, the divisive nature of the 2008 electoral results makes for terrific opposition research for anybody thinking about challenging Obama. Anybody who wants to run could dive into the data and put together a strategy — all his weaknesses on his own side are plain to see in the voting returns from 2008. They could call me, incidentally. I know all his electoral weaknesses and would be happy to help!

Just kidding.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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