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Negative campaigns and the Democrat ceiling

In response to The 5 States That Could Decide Control of the Senate:

This has got to be one of the most interesting election cycles for hard-core number-crunching poll-hungry wonks.  It’s been all over the map, from predictions of a massive Republican wave, to a fizzle that leaves Democrats counting the season as a huge victory if they still hold the Senate by just one seat.  Toward that end, I would not that not only would Republican failure to take the Senate be seen as a dispiriting failure to meet high expectations, but the next couple of election cycles are much less structurally favorable to them.  Unless there are some political earthquakes between now and 2020 (which is always a possibility, especially as government insolvency really starts to sting) the GOP really needs that “wave” win this year.

There was some throat-clenching over the past month, as some races tightened and Republican leads slipped away.  Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics has a fascinating analysis about why that happened, and what it likely portends for November.  He’s got a deep sea of data to back his thesis up, but to summarize his three crucial points:

1. Democrats in the crucial tight races haven’t actually improved their standing in the polls.  The races tightened because they clobbered their Republican opponents with massive negative advertising blitzes.  I’m old enough to remember when we were all supposed to despise negative campaigning, but I guess that doesn’t apply when Democrats do it.

2. The true meaning of Obama’s bad poll numbers is that they’re like a magnet that draws Democrats down when close races break open, and the undecided voters begin deciding.  “From 2002 to 2012, candidates of the President’s party have tended to converge on the President’s job approval,” Trende observes.  “It isn’t an absolute tendency, but it is nevertheless real.”  

3. The hits to Republican numbers from negative campaigning will tend to evaporate somewhat as campaign war chests are tipped over, and Republicans even up the spending on political ads.  It might not go away completely – early negative hits sometimes “define” candidates in ways they can never quite escape from, which is why that tactic is popular.  It worked extremely well against Mitt Romney in 2012, for example, aided by campaign rules that pretty much guarantee the incumbent President will get the first strike after the national conventions are over.  But in some of these races, it seems likely that the Republicans will recover from negative attacks and pick up a lot of the undecided voters.  

I’d add that in some cases, blowback against the negative ads could be a factor.  Some of them were dishonest enough to make voters angry.  And if the national image projected by the Democrat Party is a meltdown, such as the one over that Cory Gardner ad you mentioned earlier, it could push some more undecideds in the Republican direction.  I tend to think most Republican candidates in tight races should follow Gardner’s lead: keep it mostly positive, and let the Democrats go around the bend.

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