Jim: It’s Election Day. Your final thoughts before the polls close?
Obi-Wan Kenobi: This evening will resolve one of the starkest Election Day anomalies ever seen, an anomaly brought on by an astounding, indeed historic, development in polling-data collection and electoral analysis — off-year generic-poll numbers showing the GOP winning by 12 (Rasmussen) and by 15 (Gallup). These numbers are not even remotely comparable to anything in the recent past. (Gallup’s highest prior number was 54-36 in favor of Democrats in October 1982.) And, remember that in 1994, when the GOP made such large gains, the Gallup generic number in October was 47-47.
The anomaly is this: Polling in House races seem to reflect this Superwave, but Senate races markedly less so.
Jim: So why are we seeing this?
Obi-Wan: Well, let’s note what’s been said before, that the Senate situation does reflect the favorable GOP climate. In a year when Republicans had so many incumbents running and needed 11 seats to win a majority (prior to Scott Brown’s Massachusetts victory) a Senate takeover seemed the farthest of reaches. Still, here we are with Republican incumbents all apparently safe, ridiculous GOP margins in states like Arkansas and New Hampshire, and the party close enough in 12 or 13 contested races to get the ten they need to take the Senate.
The point is this: Some of those contested-race numbers are hard to square with the “Whoa, Nellie” nature of the Superwave. I mean, 15 points — 15 points! — is what we are talking here, people. When the Gallup number was at 14 a week ago, learned observers said: “Well, interesting, but it can’t last.” It then got bigger. And this is a Gallup “likely-voter screen” that historically has been the single best measure of voter intentions.
Yet for all of that, some Democratic Senate candidates who should be bending under that headwind are hanging around or have a lead.
Take Connecticut. The indicators are that this state’s voters are discontented and ready to throw out at least two Democratic House incumbents. Yet a Democratic candidate who is badly flawed personally and openly embraced Obama and his agenda holds onto a lead against a well-financed opponent who has run an effective campaign. (Though, admittedly, the Democrat’s lead may have started weakening late last week.)
Or Colorado. In a conservative state that is plenty unhappy with Congress, a Democratic incumbent who has voted for the Obama agenda hangs around. So too, why isn’t the Harry Reid race in Nevada a blowout? And how does Barbara Boxer, who is disliked and considered too liberal even for California, also cling to a lead against an effective opponent?
One answer is of course that the Democrats did what they set out to do — individualized these races and raised enough doubts through personal attacks to damage their Republican opponents.
A contrary explanation is that the Senate races are just lagging indicators. Voters are a bit more divided over their Senate choices because there is a lot more information out there about these contests, but once they enter the election booth they will vote in a manner that points to the real governor on this election — concern over the extremist course voters believe the current administration and Congress have taken.
The last explanation carries weight for several reasons. First, “going negative” was the Democratic strategy last year and only worked for a while against Christie in New Jersey, McDonnell in Virginia, or Brown in Massachusetts. Second, Paul in Kentucky losing his lead, Toomey in Pennsylvania losing his lead, or Boxer “pulling away” in California were all minor panics that occurred in the last month. Then we saw last weekend’s stories about “tightening” Senate races. All this was cautioned against here because while oscillations do happen, the baseline has power. Anyway these all reverted to the norm. Which is just another way of talking about, third, the Bud Wilkinson effect. In 1964, the Sooners’ football coach and demigod in Oklahoma was well ahead but lost to an unknown in the Johnson landslide. Finding enough voters to ticket-split in a wave year is just hard.
But here is why none of the above arguments are dis-positive and it goes beyond the fact that 1964 was a long time age and maybe voters today are way more sophisticated. We are peasants viewing our first tractor. We haven’t seen this before. We have no prior experience with which to judge the Gallup generic. We don’t know what we are dealing with.
Does it mean an effect so profound that the “likely voter” models the pollsters have been using in the Senate races are way off and maybe as way off as the exit polls in 2004? Are we in for major surprises? Or does it mean that beyond a certain point — a certain high number — the generic count loses its “coattail effect,” if you will, and can’t really affect highly contentious races like some Senate contests?
Anyway, tonight will answer that amazing question. And, incidentally, if any further proof is needed of just how amazing that question really is, please consider this: Except for Jay Cost this morning in the Weekly Standard — who admits he doesn’t know what to think and partly disbelieves the size of the lead and then heroically attempts to deal with it — few of the usual experts have even made an effort to come to terms with the Gallup generic number.
If the Democrats hold onto the Senate, it might mean, of course, that the Republican advantage was overstated and the Gallup number was wrong (for the first time). Or it might mean that we have learned that even a huge national trend, indeed the Superwave, can confine its effect to just one house of Congress or has state and regional limitations.
If, however, the Republicans actually do take the Senate, the question will be not whether they just got a lift towards the end but whether they got a shove. And a shove that few people saw coming because its statistical indicator was just too big and too obvious to take seriously.