Is There No Price to Be Paid?

We would all benefit from listening to the voters who may be trying to tell us something about what is happening in Washington and the U.S. Congress. Maybe there is a price to pay for not trying to help our country meet its challenges.
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The country has witnessed breathtaking intransigence by the Republican-controlled House and a majority of Senate Republicans, too.

They have made a wrenching turn right in the culture war, rushing to virtually ban abortions and expand gun rights in the states they control and to limit access to contraception nationally. Rather than opening up to immigrants, virtually every House Republican voted to deport the "Dreamers" that Obama tried to legalize.

Though President Obama handily won reelection just eight months ago, the Republicans are trying to blow up everything he has constructed, starting with the Affordable Care Act, and to just stop him from governing.

The Republicans have surprised everyone by cutting away at government with glee. They have already pocketed the first year of sequester cuts and want to lock them in. That pales before the 20 percent immediate cut in education spending. They cheered when their budget abolished the Medicare guarantee and zeroed out funding for food stamps with dose of moral scorn for the hungry.

And yet it is believed universally among the punditry and the politicians that Republicans will pay no price for all this damage and gridlock.

So single-mindedly did Republicans gerrymander the House congressional districts that supposedly few competitive seats remain; indeed, Democrats will still be struggling to defend seats in a demographically and ideologically less hospitable off-year electorate. The Republicans are certainly behaving as if they believed it.

But think about what this says about the ordinary voter and citizen. He or she must be pretty clueless and disengaged.

Seniors who punished the Democrats for their so-called Medicare cuts in 2010 must not be watching now. The one-in-seven families on the edge and using food stamps will not notice the House wiping out that safety net. College students and their families face accelerating costs and debt but will be nonplussed when their interests rate double. Sandy Hook and suburban America won't notice the Republicans' refusal on background checks. Hispanic Americans will not notice the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric on the Republican side of the immigration debate.

The deep conviction that Republicans will pay no price runs right through the pundits' criticism of Democracy Corps' recent survey on the potential congressional battleground in 2014. James Carville and I wrote that Republicans are "just as vulnerable as 2012," when the Democrats gained a net 8 House seats.

Some of these writers who just presume Republicans have "locked in their House majority," like Alex Isenstadt in POLITICO, believe Republicans will pay a very big long-term price, a kind of pact with the devil of the off-year electorate that Ron Brownstein of the National Journal has written about.

The serious arbiters of Congressional forecasting reacted to the Democracy Corps survey with an almost ideological aversion to the they-will-pay-no-price framework that really blocked them from considering the evidence at face value. Stuart Rothenberg described our memo as "an advocacy document, not an analytic one" -- and the does not pause to examine the results. The Cook Report's David Wasserman applauds the methodology and takes the data very seriously, but says his reading of the data leads him to the opposite conclusion. Democrats are more exposed than Republicans -- what would be a perverse result for democracy.

Just this past week, one critic in the Guardian embraced the Cook Report analysis and piled on with historical inevitability: only three times since the Civil War has the presidential party made gains in off-year elections.

But I encourage everyone to step back and listen to voters in the current context and not allow a pre-conceived beltway presumption to screen out what people may be saying and feeling. Carville and I were not immune to it. We looked at the results with trepidation since we were interviewing people who had voted in 2010, 88 percent of whom were white.

Let's start with the simplest of findings. Republicans won these seats by an impressive 10-point margin in the presidential year, 2012, but the incumbents have now lost half that lead in this whiter more conservative electorate. The pundits accept the accuracy of that big shift but choose to make nothing of it.

In the 24 most competitive Republican seats, Wasserman focuses on the fact that Republican "start out with a lead" of 43 to 42 percent and a personal brand that is better than party. That was a stunning observation for a very astute observer of our elections. I invite you to ask any campaign manager or pollster how vulnerable is an incumbent who was polling at 43 percent and only 1 point ahead of a generic opponent.

The Cook Report and others decided to ignore that these incumbents scored lower than battleground incumbents at comparable points -- incumbents who lost a lot of seats in the elections from 2006 onward. The current Republican incumbents in the most competitive seats have the highest disapproval rating and highest number saying, I can't reelect him or her; their 43 percent vote equals or falls below all the prior bloc of incumbents who took big losses.

The pundits ignore the partisan winds in the faces or the backs of incumbents. But I remember my Republican partner in polling for NPR saying, if you believe the party identification is going to be +7 for Democrats on Election Day, then maybe Obama can win. Well, it was +6 on Election Day and Obama won by 4. It is pretty surprising then that in the 49 Republican districts in this off-year electorate, the Democratic Party is viewed 5 points more favorably than the Republican. It is viewed 11 points more favorably in the Democratic battleground districts, where a majority give the Republican Party a cool thermometer score.

We do not whether that will matter in the battleground seats on Election Day, but we do know the Republicans have a wind in their face, while the Democrats, a wind at their back.

Wasserman jumps all over the Democracy Corps results for the 31 Democratic battleground seats to assert that Democrats are even more at risk in 2014. Republican critics from POS and NRCC piled on.

Yes, the Democratic incumbents are getting 44 percent of the vote, with a 2-point lead over the generic challenger on average across the seats, but the Republican vote is driven up by a relatively small number of more rural and distinctive districts. Democratic incumbents have a big lead of 47 to 38 percent in half the seats that are suburban, which Wasserman acknowledges. But he fails to report that the Democrats have a like lead in the over-70 percent of seats carried by Obama. The Democrats in the suburban and Obama seats have maintained their vote margin from 2012, despite now running in a 2010 off-year electorate.

That leaves 9 Democratic seats genuinely at risk, well within Wasserman's parameters, but there is much more trouble brewing in the Republican House battleground. What is going on here is not symmetric, despite the strong impulse to report it that way.

What is brewing is evidence that voters are indeed paying attention to the mayhem, gridlock and extremism in Washington -- and that is precisely where the Democracy Corps poll shows the biggest changes from last year.

First, working with President Obama rather than trying to block his agenda. By 64 to 30 percent in the Republican battleground seats, these off-year voters want their member to work with the president -- up 5 points from October and 10 points from last summer. Maybe these supposedly obtuse voters are paying attention to a Republican Party that has decide to sabotage everything the president is doing.

Second, the Tea Party. Though the off-year battleground is more Republican, negative feelings about the Tea Party have jumped 5 points since the election to half the electorate. The Tea Party is even more unpopular in the Democratic seats. Perhaps voters noticed that Tea Party members have led the fight in the House and Senate.

Third, tax increases to address to our problems and reduce the deficit. Just 39 percent of the voters in these Republican off-year districts want to vote for the kind of no-tax Republican that represents them. A majority want to raise taxes in a balanced way like the President -- again, tied for the highest margin on this question, despite the off-year. This is precisely the issue on which House Republicans are waging all out war.

And fourth, Medicare and seniors. The Republicans faced their biggest electoral pull back since November among seniors in both the Republican and Democratic districts. Maybe seniors noticed the centrality of Medicare and entitlements in all the Republican battle plans.

'Extreme House Republicans.' 'Tea Party.' 'Medicare.' 'No tax increases on the wealthy.' Is that what Democrats plan again? "The problem is, these are the same arguments that won Democrats only 201 seats -- 17 short of a majority -- in 2012," Wasserman writes. "If Democrats are set to reprise their 2012 message, how will doing the same thing twice produce a different result?"

Why not? Maybe voters are now connecting the dots that they were not inclined to do during a presidential election and choice -- dominated by billions of presidential campaigning. But this is not a presidential year and the country is living through a virtual political crisis, centered on the Congress. A stunning 45 percent of voters in the Democracy Corps poll wrongly volunteered that the Republicans control the U.S. Congress. And in the most recent Quinnipiac Poll, over two-thirds said Republicans were compromising too little -- 15 points above that for the president. Maybe that is beginning to matter.

I respect Cook and Rothenberg's monitoring of the battleground as these elections crystallize, but we should all be a little humbler at this point. Over the last three elections (2008, 2010 and 2012), they increased the size of the battleground by just over 40 seats on average in the lead up to the election, with almost all the new vulnerable seats in the party that got slammed in the election.*

We would all benefit from listening to the voters who may be trying to tell us something about what is happening in Washington and the U.S. Congress. Maybe there is a price to pay for not trying to help our country meet its challenges.

*Rothenberg increased the battleground by an average 45 seats in the last 3 elections (2008, 2010, 2012) and added 45 seats on average to the party losing net seats; Cook increased the battleground by 38 seats and added 36 seats on average for the party that lost net seats.

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