HPI Analysis: Mourdock's impact on Pence, Romney and Bennett
Tuesday, December 18, 2012 7:00 AM
This article was originally published in the Nov. 15, 2012 edition of Howey Politics Indiana.
By BRIAN A. HOWEY
INDIANAPOLIS – On Oct. 15 a USA Today poll conducted by Gallup made waves when the story line was that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had made significant gains among women voters.
Romney had darted up to a 4% lead over President Obama, and the USA Today report said, “He has growing enthusiasm among women to thank. As the presidential campaign heads into its final weeks, the survey of voters in 12 crucial swing states finds female voters much more engaged in the election and increasingly concerned about the deficit and debt issues that favor Romney. The Republican nominee has pulled within one point of the president among women who are likely voters, 48%-49%, and leads by eight points among men. The battle for women, which was apparent in the speakers spotlighted at both political conventions this summer, is likely to help define messages the candidates deliver at the presidential debate Tuesday night and in the TV ads they air during the final 21 days of the campaign.”
And USA Today made this fateful observation: “As a group, women tend to start paying attention to election contests later and remain more open to persuasion by the candidates and their ads.”
Three weeks later, Obama had won a second term, carrying all the swing states save North Carolina. He did so, as ABC News described on Nov. 6, with a “coalition of women and nonwhites. Obama has always performed better with women than with men, and with nonwhites than with whites. But tonight those numbers were so much in his favor that they built Obama a powerful firewall against a dropoff in support from white men and independent voters.”
“If white women had stayed in Romney’s camp, those swing states – Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire – might have moved into his column,” ABC reported. “Instead, Obama led among women by 12 points, nearly identical to his lead among women four years ago.”
What happened between Oct. 15 and Nov. 6 that changed the surge of female support to Romney to the game changing hand President Obama displayed on Election Day?
On Oct. 23, Indiana Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock uttered his now infamous “God intends” rape remarks at the New Albany debate with Democrat Joe Donnelly and Libertarian Andy Horning.
That remark propelled a dead heat Senate race into a 6% Donnelly victory. In the September Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll, Hoosier females were supporting Donnelly 41-35%. Republican pollster Christine Matthews noted that, “Women are less likely than men, in fact, to say the word ‘extreme’ applies to Richard Mourdock. Women rate him less favorably, but no more unfavorably than men.”
But on Election Day in Indiana, the Associated Press exit polling showed that Donnelly led Mourdock among women 52-42%.
In her post-election analysis, Matthews explained: “What was really notable is that in our September poll, Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence was leading women 46%-33% and he basically never improved upon that.”
The significance of the September figure in Indiana is that as a congressman, Pence had initiated the Planned Parenthood defunding movement, which was eventually picked up in the Indiana General Assembly, with Gov. Mitch Daniels signing the legislation into law. Gregg pointed that out in his standard stump speech, then brought the issue up in his October TV ads when he began tying Pence to the Tea Party movement and Mourdock.
Matthews noted the Pence gender erosion: “In our October poll he was tied with John Gregg among women at 42%.” The October Howey/DePauw poll was conducted Oct. 28-30, beginning five days after the Mourdock remark, capturing the ensuing media and political firestorm.
Matthews also observed of her Bellwether Barometer social media project, “In our final social media analysis, the words ‘rape, pregnancy, and abortion’ were prominent for Mourdock, but unfortunately for Mike Pence, they also factored into his image and the perception that he was standing behind Mourdock.”
Mourdock alters gubernatorial race
That Pence defeated Democrat John Gregg 49.8 to 46.3% – the closest Indiana gubernatorial race since 1960 – also fits in with the circumstantial evidence that Mourdock’s rape remark altered not only his Senate race, but the gubernatorial race, possibly the Indiana superintendent of public instruction, and, perhaps, even the presidential race. In the 2nd CD, Republican Jackie Walorski won a razor-thin victory of Democrat Brendan Mullen (see Jack Colwell column on pages 1-3).
The Pence campaign endured a nerve-rattling election night with Gregg within a few percentage points through mid-evening, as the campaign awaited late returns from Hamilton and Lake counties, informed and reliable sources tell HPI. It wasn’t until those two counties reported that the Pence campaign realized he had won, but by a much closer margin than anyone had imagined.
Had Gregg stopped his Sandborn TV ad schtick a couple of weeks earlier and had gone to his contrast ads with Pence sooner, the Democrat might have pulled off the most shocking upset since Frank O’Bannon defeated Stephen Goldsmith in 1996. A common belief in political circles these days is that if the campaign had gone on another week, Gregg might have done it.
In the hours after Mourdock’s debate rape remark, Pence called for him to apologize, then backed off. In the week before the election, Pence came to Mourdock’s defense, lauding him at the Indiana Republican fall dinner, on the campaign trail in places like Dillsboro (caught by WTHR-TV). On election eve, when a WAVE-TV reporter in Jeffersonville asked Pence about Mourdock, press secretary Christy Denault cut the interview off and led Pence into the darkness.
In exit polling, Pence actually lost the female vote to Gregg by a narrow margin, according to the Associated Press. Matthews observed, “I wasn’t expecting him to lose women by the 47%-52% he did and I think there was definitely a ‘Mourdock’ impact on his race.” Essentially, Pence dropped from a 13% lead among women in the Sept. 22-25 Howey/DePauw poll to a 5% deficit on Election Day – an 18% hemorrhage.
That kind of data suggests a significant negative Mourdock impact on the GOP ticket in Indiana.
A circumstantial Romney impact
A much more circumstantial case can be made that Mourdock may have impacted the Obama/Romney presidential race, given that the president swept almost all the swing states and those late-deciding female voters USA Today described ended up giving Obama a significant edge.
Political analysts urged restraint when making the Mourdock connection to Romney’s loss.
HPI columnist Chris Sautter, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant, cautioned about reading too much into the Mourdock impact on the presidential race. “It would take an enormous and in my view unwarranted leap to conclude that Mourdock’s remarks altered the election,” Sautter said. “First of all, Romney’s movement after the first debate allowed him to retrieve support he had lost after the two conventions and in the wake of the release of the ‘47%’ tape – but no more. His movement wasn’t changing the basic dynamics of the election.”
Sautter continued, “Secondly, the problem Romney had with women pre-dated the Mourdock and Aiken remarks. Mourdock’s remarks provided fresh material, to be sure, but the argument was hardly new. In fact, there are a multitude of factors that contributed to the outcome, especially message. Obama was clearly viewed as the candidate most likely to fight for the middle class in an election in which that ended up being more important than even who could fix the economy. Also, Obama coalition voters turned out in equal or greater numbers than 2008 while Romney voters didn’t.”
“Mourdock’s remarks clearly made waves in the campaign,” Sautter concluded. “But I wouldn’t go overboard with the theory.”
Geoffrey Skelley, a researcher for Prof. Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia’s Center on Politics, agreed that it will be difficult to determine the Mourdock impact nationally.
“I could see it having had an impact in Indiana but I think we always expected Obama to win women in most places – the question was just by how much,” Skelley told HPI. “I don’t recall noticing a significant shift in female support for the president in the aftermath of Mourdock’s comments. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say anything definitive, also because the polling was so all over the place (from too pro-Romney to too pro-Obama) compared to the final results in some states that it’s hard to judge the crosstabs.”
Skelley continued, “But the Mourdock-related issues clearly could only help the Obama campaign if they did have an effect so it’s no wonder that they were running ads tying Romney to Mourdock. Remember, in Virginia we had just had this huge issue at the state level over transvaginal ultrasounds and abortion, which served as a major Democratic attack in presidential and Senate ads. In the end, Obama had a 7-point edge among women over men in Virginia (versus 10 nationally) so maybe that helped. But as a counterpoint, Colorado’s exit polling didn’t really show any gender gap (Obama won 51% of both men and women there). But Ohio’s 10 point gap between men and women (55-45 Obama support) matched the national outcome, so that may be the place where running ads connecting Romney to Mourdock might have been useful.”
Obama’s swing state sweep
While taking Sautter’s advice and that of “Apocalypse Now” movie character “Chef” (“never get out of the boat, never get out of the boat”), when surveying the swing state results and contrasting them to the Gallup swing state female surge in mid-October, Obama carried 58% of the female vote in New Hampshire, 55% in Ohio, 54% in Virginia, 53% in Florida, 56% in Pennsylvania, 59% in Iowa, 57% in Wisconsin and 51% in Colorado. Those were all states that the Romney campaign believed they could win through mid-evening on Election Day, in part with invigorated female support. They were stunned when they didn’t.
The other important thing to note is that Gallup’s polling rated poorly in an analysis by the New York Times (see page 7).
The Obama campaign used the Mourdock “rape intends” remark in radio ads in Virginia and Colorado in the final days of the campaign, and he won both states.
The day before Mourdock’s rape remark, his campaign began airing an endorsement ad featuring Romney. In the hours after the Mourdock remark, Romney denounced it, saying, “I disagree with his views on rape and incest, but I still support him.”
As David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times reported on Oct. 26: “In an exercise that is becoming repetitive this year, slightly more sane Republicans like Mitt Romney and John McCain were forced to disassociate themselves from the comments of one of their political compatriots – not that Romney put much distance between himself and Mourdock. Romney is maintaining his vigorous support of Mourdock, since keeping the Indiana seat in GOP hands is key to a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate. Besides, if he were to forsake Mourdock because the man does not favor an abortion exemption for women impregnated by rapists, he would also have to cut ties to as many as 11 other Republican Senate candidates who hold the same position.”
Mourdock permeated the national stage
There is no question that the Mourdock blunder permeated the national stage.
When Romney campaigned in Ohio in the days following the Mourdock remark, he was peppered with questions about it and brushed them off, with network TV cameras and coverage evident. In both the Romney and Pence cases, it was dangerous for candidates to be seen fleeing or ignoring the controversy of the day. The images would make Michael Deaver cringe.
Charlie Cook writes in the National Journal, “The GOP brand has been so damaged that it even affects Republicans who don’t have self-destructive tendencies. When Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana put grenades in their mouths and pulled the pins, the ensuing explosions and shrapnel hurt the party and other candidates as well.”
The New York Times reported on Oct. 25: “The Obama campaign sought to exploit the opening, as did virtually every Democratic campaign for Senate, pressing a message that the Republican Party is out of step with female voters. President Obama ‘felt those comments were outrageous and demeaning to women,’ Jen Psaki, the president’s campaign spokeswoman, told reporters on Wednesday morning. Ms. Psaki called it ‘perplexing’ that Mr. Romney had not demanded that his ad be taken off television. He supports allowing abortion in the case of rape, incest and when the health of the mother is at risk. Republicans in Washington hoped that the anti-abortion tilt of Indiana would insulate Mr. Mourdock from much political damage. But the controversy fed into the argument that Mr. Donnelly and other Democrats have been pressing ever since Mr. Mourdock’s stunning victory over Mr. Lugar.”
Democrats picked up Senate seats in Indiana, Maine and Massachusetts and expanded majority control from 53-47 to 55-45.
As the 2012 election retreats into the nation’s rearview mirror, perhaps it was Republican Karen Hughes, former advisor to President George W. Bush, who stated a fitting coda to the Mourdock campaign disaster that burned Republicans far and wide.
“If another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue,” Hughes said. “The college-age daughters of many of my friends voted for Obama because they were completely turned off by Neanderthal comments like the suggestion of ‘legitimate rape.’”