Friday, September 11, 2009

Obama and Deeds - The Ties That Bind

As I have watched polls over the summer in the gubernatorial contest, I have been mildly concerned given how bad Creigh seemed to be doing. Unlike some others, I didn’t dismiss the polls or their methodology, although at the same time given how early they were, I didn’t think they were at all predictive of what would happen in the election.

The real question I had was what were these polls measuring? Their lopsided and counter intuitive results, IMHO, were attributable not to the specific candidates, but rather to three environmental aspects of the political landscape this past summer that were all lined up against Creigh.

Two of those factors, however, now appear to be moving in Creigh’s direction, and the third may as well. All else being equal, I wouldn’t be surprised to soon see polls showing McDonnell losing support and Creigh gaining it, leaving both candidates pulling in the mid- to high 40s, solidly within the MoE.

The first factor was that over the summer mainstream Conservatives, teabaggers, and your garden-variety birthers, deathers and racists, not to mention Republican Party regulars, were able to coalesce around opposition to health care reform, pulling in many people who are usually on the periphery or outside of political battles into the fray. The result was a temporary and intense spike in enthusiasm among these groups, who were united in their opposition to both the President and the Democratic Party, and their need for Prozac.

These groups, given their pack dog mentality, were further egged on by the President’s insistence on turning the other cheek in the name of bipartisanship, which they saw as a sign of his weakness and their strength. At the same time, the perception among Progressives began to grow that the President would sell out important principles in pursuit of a deal with Republicans, causing many to ask what was the point of elections if, once in office, the people we elect are subservient to the ones we defeated?

Finally, the loud, thuggish tactics of these groups at town halls over the summer drew plenty of media coverage, giving the impression of a tiny, but intense grassroots movement being much larger and more significant than it really was.

As a result of all this, from mid-July into August, Republicans were becoming hyper-energized while Democrats were becoming dispirited. This was clearly reflected in Virginia’s Gubernatorial polling numbers

Consider, in five polls following the primary from mid-June through the end of July, the margin in the gubernatorial race was: +6 Deeds; +4 Deeds; +1 McD; +6 McD; and +3 McD.

Beginning with a SUSA poll from July 27 and 28, however, the margin in the polls shot up to +15 McD, and has since pretty much stayed there, although a couple of polls showed more modest margins of +7 McD and +b McD, better but still outside the MoE.

According to Gallup, meanwhile, over the same time period President Obama’s weekly approval average took a dive. It stood at 62/31 in early June, a spread of 31 points. By the end of July, when Creigh’s numbers began to deteriorate, those figures were at 54/39, with a spread of 15.

Obama kicked ass Wednesday night, although the extent to which he has remade the debate remains to be seen. That will be determined by his actions over the next several weeks.

IF Obama follows through on his tough words –

IF Obama truly calls Republicans out by name for their lies –

IF Obama lays down the law for the Blue Dogs –

IF Obama is one the way to leading Democrats in Congress to genuine health care reform with or without Republicans –

If he does all these things, then Democrats will be fired up. We will believe that elections make a difference, and this will most certainly be reflected in greater and sustained support for Creigh.

If, on the other hand, Obama reverts to previous form, and simply pursues bipartisanship as a goal in and of itself, regardless of the boorish and dishonest behavior of Republicans, Democrats will again become dispirited. At least this one will.

Early indications are mixed. Joe Wilson gave the President, Democrats and proponents of health care reform a gift the other night, but the President tried to give it back. As a result, he again wound up playing Charlie Brown trying to kick the football as some no-name BSC congressman took on the role of Lucy pulling it away. Just has the President was graciously saying how he forgave Joe Wilson after the Congressman’s sincere apology last night, the boorish Wilson was telling reporters that his apology was not sincere at all, but that the leadership forced him to make it. And now he has put out a fundraising video in which he says, “I will not be muzzled.”

The second factor was Creigh’s month-long absence from the campaign trail in July and the manner in which it was handled. This was a tactical error that left Bob McDonnell alone to define himself as a moderate.

Indeed, Creigh’s drop in the polls, while coinciding with the dynamics of the larger health care debate going on nationally, also coincided with his absence from the public eye. Arguably, he could have mitigated his erosion in the polls had he been a more aggressive campaigner during that time.

The result of McDonnell’s efforts, however, can be seen in the most recent SUSA poll, where McDonnell is pulling 42% of the self-described moderate voter, 15% of the self-described liberals, and 31% of self-described pro-choice voters. At the same time, McDonnell is getting 89% of self-described Conservatives. Similarly, McDonnell is attracting 19% of Democrats and 88% of Republicans, not to mention 13% of Obama voters, at the same time he is garnering 90% of McCain voters.

In short, these numbers show McDonnell is attracting considerable support from people diametrically opposed to his positions, without sacrificing any of his base. (I realize that the small samples of these sub-groups call the accuracy of them into question, but the consistency among each group, even accounting for the overlap, suggests it is not simply a case of skewed numbers).

Several weeks ago, Creigh had already begun to address this, using the choice issue to expose McDonnell as the extreme social Conservative that he is when McDonnell’s thesis came along. So far, it has been a game of catch-up for him – between the Democratic primary and Creigh’s lost month, McDonnell has had Virginia’s Independent voters to himself for seven months.

That will change, however, as voters focus more on the race. While the thesis fallout has yet to show up in polls, McDonnell simply has too much of a public record to avoid the issue forever. McDonnell’s ability to conceal the huge gulf between what he really believes and how he has presented himself, will prove increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

The third factor that has been affecting the polls is the exhaustion of Virginia’s Democrats. Beginning in January 2008, the Obama-Clinton primary pitted Democrats against one-another. Following Obama’s nomination, we came together for a few months, but with Virginia being a swing state, the campaign was intense. No sooner did that intense election end that a hard fought, again intense, and a sometimes personally bitter primary campaign took its place. This lasted through June.

To an extent, the joint effect of renewed support for the President and the exposing of Bob McDonnell will counteract this, but it won’t fully address it.

Further, the fact is that Creigh was a compromise winner in the primary who benefited from the three-way dynamic of that race. While he got 50% of the vote, the intensity of his support was behind that of both Moran and McAuliffe; Creigh’s core support was only in the low 20s throughout the entire primary season. Consequently, even leaving aside his folksy, self-effacing campaign style, Creigh is unlikely to be able to rouse Virginia’s Democrats from their malaise alone.

The key here, I believe, is getting the Commonwealth’s party leaders in to stump for Creigh as much as possible. We need Mark Warner. We need Jim Webb. We need the President (and not just for fundraising). And I say let’s get the Big Dog in here, for goodness sakes.

Even with that, however, in the final analysis, it is Creigh and Creigh alone who has to close the sale.

But at least now he is competing on a more hospitable playing field.

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