Clinton Pollster: If Election Were Today, It Would Be Like '94

Clinton Pollster: If Election Were Today, It Would Be Like '94

The pollster manning the ship for President Bill Clinton during the disastrous 1994 congressional elections is experiencing some déjà vu as the Democratic Party approaches this off-year contest.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, Stan Greenberg -- alongside his fellow strategist and party adviser James Carville -- said that the signs of electoral bloodbath exist today, though not quite as strongly as they did 16 years ago.

"We are on the edge of it. but we are not there," Greenberg said, at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "If the election were now, we would have a change election; we would have a 1994."

In particular, both strategists noted that the sense of economic stagnation which is depressing voters today very much resembles the political hurdle that nearly derailed Clinton (and cost Greenberg his job) during his first term in office.

But he wasn't entirely fatalistic. Greenberg emphasized that both time (six months to go until the election) and landscape (a recently-passed health care bill and an improving economy) can still work to the Democrats' favor. More than that, the GOP has -- in what could be an epic bit of political malpractice -- failed to buoy its image during this ripe period. A repeat of 1994 can still very well occur -- but the time might have already passed.

"The good news for Democrats is that, after health care passed, the Democratic intensity number went up. It still doesn't match the Republican intensity number," said Carville. "Now if the intensity numbers were the same in November as they are now, it does not bode well for Democrats. But if they continue to improve for Democrats, it would be better news. They are not going to pick up seats. That's a given. But how many they lose is quite open."

"When we look back on this, we [could] say [Scott Brown's election in] Massachusetts is when 1994 happened and after that we have seen a different set of events," Greenberg concluded. "It is still going to be a tough election and it will be marginally better than where it is now. But I don't think we will have a [repeat of] '94."

In a wide-ranging talk about the state of politics, the two longtime strategists touched on a host of issues that they project will play critical roles in the months ahead. Offering unsolicited advice to the White House, they urged more focus on job growth and fiscal responsibility, while forthrightly acknowledging that there is no guarantee that such a strategy will produce electoral advantages.

"The hardest thing to do in all of political communications is how do you deal with a bad but somewhat improving economy," said Carville. "And the skill, or the way to thread the needle in saying things are getting better when people don't feel like they are getting better... We fought with it and didn't do that great a job in the early years of the Clinton administration. It is not like someone has the holy grail of how to do this."

As for specific policies, Greenberg urged Democrats to offer proposals that, first and foremost, will pass and, secondarily, don't end up pitting the party against itself. Regulatory reform, he stressed, is a smart follow-up to health care reform. As is immigration reform -- which doesn't seem to be on this year's docket but could very well be a beneficial issue for the party.

"It divides them worse than us," said Carville. "Politically, I think it is a good issue for Democrats to bring up. It gives them fits, real fits."

As for energy legislation, Greenberg seemed bullish on the politics -- provided that legislation has bipartisan support. The longtime pollster said he suspects Obama is trying to peel off a few Republicans by coming out in favor of nuclear energy and offshore drilling. And while that could, in the end, rile members of the Democratic base, it is a price worth paying.

"Sometimes you just got to go for those things," he said. "Karl Rove had a base strategy. Karl Rove had a base strategy, OK. And he was very, very consistent. And he destroyed the Republican Party."

Finally, the two offered some pointed pieces of wisdom on the Tea Party movement. First, Democrats should not expect to win their support. Polling data shows that self-identified Tea Party members overwhelmingly support traditionally Republican and conservative platforms. That said, Democrats shouldn't elevate them to the role of the political opposition, either.

"I wouldn't run against the Tea Party," said Greenberg. "I would run against Republicans. The Tea Party has clearly made the Republican leaders... they have been muffled. They have been unwilling to talk against the extremism because of the risk that they will face their wrath. But the Tea Party's image overall has been fairly positive in the electorate as a whole... I would not get into a game of being against the Tea Party."

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