Pete Seat: Good polling news for GOP
Thursday, March 06, 2014 11:18 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – There was some good news for Republicans in a joint New York Times/CBS poll last week. On the generic U.S. House ballot the party held a 42 percent to 39 percent lead over Democrats, meaning Republicans are on track to hold their House majority.
Additionally, with solid U.S. Senate challengers in Arkansas, Colorado and Virginia having emerged, and open contests in South Dakota and West Virginia, even MSNBC host Chris Matthews predicted Republicans could pick up 10 – 10! – seats in the upper chamber in November.
This could not come at a better time. Rather than playing in the minority, relegated to watching Harry Reid chuck Republican legislation in the nearest wastebasket, Sen. Dan Coats and his colleagues will have one hand on the steering wheel along with the House, while President Barack Obama remains the lone person trying to step on the brakes as his term sunsets.
But exuberance on the morning of Nov. 5, 2014, cannot blind Republicans to the real problems that lie ahead. The Senate majority would only be a guarantee for two years before the likes of John McCain (R-Ariz.), Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are up again in 2016. That could lead to easy reelections or highly competitive races in every corner of the country. And beyond that, the longer term trends are extremely troubling, potentially spelling future doom for the Republican Party’s national prospects.
While a 51 percent majority of Americans disapprove of President Obama at the moment, the public isn’t that keen on Republicans either. In a story on the poll, New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Megan Thee-Brenan wrote that “Republican legislators [in D.C.] are also in the minority of public opinion on matters related to the economy. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the distribution of wealth should be more equitable, and most, regardless of party affiliation, think that any place to reduce the federal budget deficit should include both tax increases and spending cuts.”
Of course, public opinion is not always the driving force of prudent policy, but being on the opposite side of the majority is hardly a good spot for a struggling party to be in as it prepares for the future. Even worse, though, is that Republicans are almost as dismayed with Republicans.
“The Republican Party is contending with more profound structural challenges,” the reporters added. “Forty-two percent of Republicans said they were ‘mostly discouraged’ about the future of their party, and among Tea Party supporters, that number was 51 percent.”
Among the structural challenges facing Republicans is one highlighted in an article called “The GOP’s Talent Gap” by National Journal reporter Alex Roarty. “There’s mounting evidence that the party’s political class simply isn’t good at running campaigns anymore,” Roarty wrote. His theory is that Republicans at the national level aren’t good at learning lessons from each election cycle. While every loss leads to soul searching, every victory is met with chest thumping declarations of electoral supremacy.
Therein lies a cosmic misunderstanding of election results. In political campaigning, the end does not justify the means. Winning does not validate every strategy, tactic, idea, commercial, phone script or direct mail piece. Winning just means you need to more closely analyze the data to find improvements for next time.
Following the tidal wave of 2010, many believed Republicans had cracked the electoral code. But come 2012, the party had its clock cleaned at the federal level, leading the Republican National Committee to unveil an extensive internal report on the good, bad and ugly of that year.
Sometimes candidates win because they run a decidedly superior campaign. Sometimes candidates win because they are dragged across the finish line, riding the coattails of someone higher up the ticket. In the case of 2014, some Republicans will win because the public is plain fed up with President Obama and they want an additional check on his power.
Therefore, it’s way too early for anyone to pop champagne bottles over any poll that shows Republicans leading on the generic ballot. Sure, Republicans are on the right track. But if 2014 is in fact a good year for the party, be wary of anyone who says, “We’re going to run 2016 the same way we did it in 2014.”
That’s a surefire recipe for disaster.
Pete Seat is senior project manager at the Indianapolis-based Hathaway Strategies. He was previously a spokesman for President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats and the Indiana Republican Party. He joins Howey Politics Indiana as a regular columnist.