Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Election 2010: This wasn’t a wave, it was a reset button.

For several weeks now, pundits have been telling us the 2010 elections were a great ‘wave’ election that reshaped the landscape and gave Republicans a mandate. When you dig deeper, that doesn’t seem to hold true. More than anything it seems as if we simply erased the Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008 and started over again. It’s no coincidence that Democrats won 56 seats in 2006 and 2008 combined and Republicans won slightly more at 63 seats this year.

We all know that Independent voters were the deciding factor in this election. In fact, polling has shown that they have been the key factor in the last 3 national elections. Beyond that, however, and looking at the types of districts changing hands, one comes away with a much different perspective on the size and scope of these elections.

When first looking at the landscape of the 2010 Republican victories a pattern quickly emerges. For all of the districts that Republican candidates picked up, we won very few districts that would be considered Democrat territory. There were few pickups in Connecticut, Oregon or other typical left leaning states, places that you would expect Republicans to win in a landslide election.

In fact, the most Democratic district that we picked up this year is a D+4 on the Cook Partisan scale. PA-11 was held by Paul Kanjorski, a Democrat known for his earmark spending and his support of corporate bailouts. Not exactly a big reach.

Compare that to the two most recent wave elections: 2006 and 2008:

In 2006, the best Republican district that Democrats won was the TX-22 open seat, rated by Cook as a R+12 district, along with KS-2, which was rated R+9. In 2008 it was even worse, with Bobby Bright winning in a R+16 seat in Alabama and Walter Minnick winning a R+18 district in Idaho.

In both of those years you saw Democrats going deep into Republican territory and capturing heavily right-leaning seats. Seats that, in most cases, they would be unable to hold onto for long. In fact, historically that has been a sign of a wave election. Every time one has happened it has given the winning party seats deep in their opponent’s territory, and some of those seats quickly switch back to their natural party.

It’s not just that there weren’t a couple of standout districts this year that seems strange, the overall leaning of the districts we won was equally odd.

Of the 63 districts that Republicans picked up only 11 of them are rated as D+ districts by Cook. Let’s compare that to 2006 and 2008. In 2006, 19 of the 30 seats that Democrats picked up were R+ Districts and in 2008 an incredible 18 of the 26 Democratic pick up’s were R+ Districts.

While at first glance this ‘wave’ looks incredibly big (it’s hard to ignore a 60+ seat pickup) but in the context of reaching into Democrat territory, there is no depth to it. Looking at the average rating of the districts goes a long way to illustrating that fact. In 2006, the average partisan rating for Democratic pickups was R+0.72. In 2008, they stretched that rating to R+1.55. Meaning that on average, in 2006 Democrats won seats that were slightly Republican and in 2008 they went more than twice as deep into Republican territory. Neither is terribly surprising, that’s what happens in a wave election. The real shock comes looking at the 2010 average: the average GOP pickup was R+2.25.

So in the biggest ‘wave’ election in over 60 years, Republicans picked up mainly Republican seats. How is that possible?

It makes more sense when you look at the individual races. Not only were 82% of the districts that we picked up Republican leaning, but a lot of them were deep in Republican territory. 13 of the newly Republican districts have double digit partisan scores, including two (TX-17 and MS-04) that are R+20 districts. That’s 20% of the victories in districts that leaned Republican by double digits! So not only were we winning back Republican seats, but we were winning back heavily Republican seats. Not quite the way the media portrayed the evening’s story.

If this election isn’t quite what we were told it was, then what does it actually mean? There seem to be 3 main points that we can draw from this election:

1. This was not a mandate. Don’t get carried away. This is not the mandate that some might claim. Republican Districts went Republican. This wasn’t some over-whelming movement for Republican leadership. This election, while clearly having a lot of fiscal conservative overtones, was about Republican Districts coming home to their party, more than anything else. If we take it to mean more than that, will be back in the minority in no time.

2. A 2012 rollback isn’t a given. The good news about the GOP not winning a lot of heavily Democrat districts is that we are not now holding a large number of seats that will naturally shift back to the Democrats. After every ‘wave’ election there are a handful of seats that naturally switch back to the other party. They take a lot of money and effort with them that would be better spent on other races. We’re not faced with that problem. In fact, we haven’t even maxed out on the seats we can comfortably hold.

3. We left a lot on the table. After winning over 60 seats it seems natural to assume that we’re close to maxed out on Congressional seats as a party. The truth is we are still in a deficit. After this election, Republican’s hold 17 seats that are D+ rated districts. The most Democrat leaning district in the group is the IL-10 seat won by Robert Dold, at D+6.

On the other side, Democrats hold 25 seats that are R+ rated. The most Republican of them is UT-02, which is rated R+15. This includes the 12 seats they currently hold that are R+6 or greater! At the end of the day, Democrats still hold more of our seats then we have of theirs. Makes you wonder about the true depth of this ‘wave’ election, doesn’t it?

Written by Bill Lee and Bruce Harvie

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Re-electing Pelosi...

The re-election of Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House may well be a consequence of a continued focus on generic ballot numbers, and an insistence that this election is not about the individual republican candidates, but rather only about the failings of Democratic control.

Tel Opinion (TOR) reviewed studies (19 by TOR) from 82 congressional districts which are either held by Democratic incumbents or are open seats, to determine what if any patterns might exist. We looked at the three basic groups: those where the Republicans lead, those with a Democratic lead, and those where the ballot results are within the margin of error (+/- 5.7 or less).

Of the 82 districts, the Republican candidate leads in 25 districts by some 6 points or more. All of the districts where Republicans lead have at least two of three characteristics:

-Generic ballot favors Republicans by more than 10 points

-High unfavorable for the Democratic candidate

-Republican candidate favorable rating is equal to or greater than that of the Democrat candidate (2-3 times higher in some cases).

* In 13 of these districts, the generic ballot heavily favors Republicans and the Democrats have an unfavorable rating over 28%.

* In two, the Republican has an advantage in the favorable rating, and the Democrat has high unfavorable, over 40%.

* In ten, The Republican candidate has a higher favorable rating than the Democrat, and there is a strong GOP advantage on the generic ballot..

In the group where Democrats are leading, there are 23 districts where they do so by 5% or more. Their advantage appears to come from one of three places:

* Twelve districts: the Republican candidate is relatively unknown, and has a hard ID of less than 30%.

* Two districts: the smallest group and the most obvious: Republicans with an unfavorable rating, nearly 1:1 in some cases, poisoning their chances for success.

* Nine districts. The democrat in each case has a high favorable rating, 45% or higher, and a minimum of a 2:1 fav/unfav ratio.

That leaves 30 races that are within the margin of error. In all of these contests, the Republican name identification or favorable/unfavorable reveals the reason these races are so close:

In each case, the Republican candidate has either very low hard name id, making him virtually unknown, or has very high unfavorable, making him as disliked as his democratic opponent.

Conversely, in each race the democrat candidate either has high unfavorable (25 races) or is just as unknown as the Republican (5 races).

* There are 19 races where the Democrat has a high unfavorable rating and the Republican has low hard name identification.

* There are an additional added 5 districts where both have low identification.

* Finally, there are 6 districts where both the Republican and Democrat candidates have high unfavorable ratings.

The conclusions here are somewhat self-evident, and nothing particularly new:

  • The correlation between identification and approval levels and the ballot is clear.
  • There are 36 districts where the enhancement of Republican name id/approval levels appears to be able to significantly improve the ballot.
  • 12 of these contests are currently being led by a Democrat

  • 24 of these are currently within the margin of error.

  • 47 of 81 Republican candidates were not meeting the generic ballot percentage in their head to head matchups.
  • A positive generic ballot is helpful, but not the end-all-be-all. Without a significant name identification and/or approval factor, in many cases it is almost useless.
  • The mantra that this election is not about the individual candidates is weak, and not the ultimate answer. One size does not fit all.

You can’t defeat somebody with nobody. Individual Republican candidates must be known in order to be perceived as a legitimate alternative (e.g. measure up to the generic ballot). The key to maximizing Republican victories and potentially ensuring a Republican speaker is the enhancement of selected Republican candidates’ id and approval levels.


Bill Lee is the President of Tel Opinion Research, LLC, a survey research firm based in Alexandria, Virginia. The opinions expressed herein are personal, and not necessarily those of Tel Opinion Research per se, or its employees.

Monday, August 16, 2010

What Does Cheap Mean to You?

How’s your survey research IQ? Let’s try one simple hypothetical question. Suppose there is a state representative district in a southern state, with a incumbent Democrat, a Republican challenger with no significant name identification, and a 20 point advantage for Democrats in party registration. Black voters represent 29% of those registered.

What do you think the ballot gap is today, before the contest really starts? According to a published report, Survey USA says it is Republican by 8%. And, mind you, that survey reports a sample of 58% women and 42% men and only 18% undecided.

We conducted a live call study in the same district with the same number of interviews a week later and came up with an even contest. We were within the margin of error on blacks, partisan registrants and gender. There were gross differences within the cross tabulations between the two methodologies. For instance, there was a 21% difference in how men were voting. Which one do you want to base your campaign strategy on?

The differences between live interviews and robo calls is pronounced, various comparison ‘studies’ of the two notwithstanding. We see these differences almost daily. The same robo-call firm, two to three days out from a mayoral Primary election in Buffalo, New York was 18% off of the actual election results in a Mayor’s race. Another firm [PPP] had the losing candidate in a recent NY special congressional election up 17% three or four days out. He lost by 2%.

Of course, a robo-survey or IVR is cheap compared to a live interview. So you make the decision: What does cheap mean to you?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Incumbency: A Synonym for Arrogance

In the last several months we’ve heard a great deal about the anti-incumbent mood of the electorate, seen several incumbents fall to less than sterling challengers and a variety of ‘establishment’ candidates toppled from their top of the polls perch by unknowns. And there have been innumerable incumbents who, while re-nominated, have won with totally unimpressive numbers.

Meanwhile, Gallup is reporting various numbers to the effect that incumbents are generically in trouble. For instance, the classic question of whether voters would choose to re-elect their personal congressman, as opposed to a generic re-elect question pertaining to the congress as a whole, has seen positive re-elect numbers drop to about half of voters from a level that traditionally has been far higher. And when asked whether they’d favor experience versus no experience…..shock and awe, they choose no experience.

We’ve seen similar trends in research we’ve conducted for many months past. For instance, in one seat with a GOP inclined voter base and a reasonably popular and very hard working Republican incumbent, 58% responded they agreed with a statement that things are so bad in Washington they’d vote against all incumbents regardless of party.

Many ‘establishment’ figures, from both parties, must be thinking the world is upside down, that all of this anger is illogical, mystical and frightening.

Lance Tarrance, the Dean of Republican pollsters, suggests this is not so much an ‘anti-incumbent’ dynamic operating within the electorate as it is “a reaction to the perception of a sense of entitlement”, or in my terms, a feeling that no one is listening. Either way, and in sum, incumbents are perceived as arrogant.

There are a host of current contributing factors:
First, the media and its reportage of the ‘tea party’ dynamic. Privately, the media is simply agog with the thought that the ‘tea party’ will subsume the GOP, destroy it’s incumbents, and thereby preserve a progressive agenda. So the reportage focus is upon instances where that might happen. In the process, they inadvertently create viable candidacies where none exist.

The so-called ‘tea party’, however, did not create this situation. Local ‘tea parties’ have frequently endorsed opposing candidates. It is not an organization, as much as the news media would like it to be, but rather a popular dynamic. It’s proper label is conservative populism.

In any case, Nikki Haley, however intelligent or attractive she may be, or how much of an upstart she is portrayed as, was a several term incumbent member of the South Carolina House, and sometimes thought of as a protégé of that privileged character, Governor Mark Sanford. When the Palin bolt of lightning struck, what it gave Haley was not the Palin support base as much as the opportunity of massive news coverage, and the resulting money, at a time when she could not keep pace with her opposition on paid media. The other candidates, all higher profile incumbents, all members of the recognized establishment, all higher than her in the polls, all better financed, suddenly couldn’t get a word in edgewise. All of their ‘advantages’ were of little consequence. And she played the tune well. Note the parallel here to Scott Brown?

Similarly, Congressman Sestak in Pennsylvania was not known as an upstart rabble-rouser or a master of agitprop. In his case, he was blessed with an opponent reeking of a sense of entitlement, who said in effect, ‘I’m running as a Democrat so I can keep my job.’ Memo to Arlen: That’s not what it’s all about.

A number of the nomination losers had, in different forms, whether by resume, heritage, length of service, personality or inappropriate comments, the smell of privilege and entitlement about them. For the most part, they do not appear to have been perceived as listening, and undertook few personal activities to demonstrate that they were.

Second, in most instances the issues advanced by the winners in these cases were anti-establishment in nature, in the context of the establishment having done a host of things to spend large amounts of money with dubious consequential benefits, raise taxes and increase the size of government. If you as an incumbent voted for Obama-care, stimulus bills or similar items, you had, and have, a problem.

Note, however, that most of these sorts of legislative or executive actions tended to benefit some sort of special interest, and not the average American. The entitled element is perceived as giving away the money of the average American, to banks, car manufacturers, and assorted other elements most people don’t identify with. There is some resulting sense of betrayal.

So if this is all true, why was Lincoln able to get into a runoff in Arkansas? A bit of instructive history is in order.

Years ago, Lance Tarrance and I were involved with an unknown candidate for Governor of Arkansas, Frank White, who had been the state’s business development director. He changed parties and became a Republican the night before he filed. Bill Clinton was the Governor. He and his bride had imported a number of very liberal eggheads to help run the state. Hillary insisted on being known as Hillary Rodham. Not Clinton, Rodham. Clinton appeared on the cover of Parade magazine (along with Jack Kemp) as a probable Presidential nominee and next President of the United States. He dramatically increased the price of car tags, affecting all Arkansans, and cut a private deal with Jimmy Carter to house the Marielista boat lift Cubans at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, at a time when the state unemployment rate was over 14%. He wasn’t listening. He seemed to have a sense of entitlement. In brief, we capitalized on his arrogance. He lost.

After his defeat, Clinton spent many months on the road on a ‘listening’ tour. And he did listen. Thanks to some inadvertent help from White, Clinton ran again and won. Thus was born, “I feel your pain.” And guess who Lincoln’s coach was in this contest? Bill Clinton.

Finally, our most prominent incumbent leaders are, in fact, arrogant. Barack Obama continues to display a very imperious personality. It is a persona now past the original perception of intelligence, moving to one of being aloof and out of touch. Nancy Pelosi, his best supporting actress, persistently pops up at a podium in a Coco Chanel-like outfit and tells us government knows better than the average citizen. Arrogance personified. Pelosi and Obama thereby harm all incumbents, regardless of party, and the perception of American government itself. They have created the dynamic referred to as the ‘tea party’.

Republican incumbents must not be of an insecure frame of mind, but rather take on the challenge of communicating in ways that are appropriate to the current climate. They must not be a synonym for arrogance. For if the GOP is to have an opportunity to regain control of at least one house of Congress or have any chance of improving its standing in the various state legislatures it must avoid any significant loss of its incumbents. The question then is what are Republican incumbents to do about all of this? The steps here are simple:

*Via survey research, understand very precisely where they are in relationship to the anger and the perception of arrogance and anti-incumbent dynamic, and why. And know, in this environment, survey data can change very rapidly.

*Focus on those demographic groups most susceptible to voting out incumbents.

*Adapt their style to aggressively use the rhetoric of the day that suits the issues. If they have been in office more than two years, they may be at a significant disadvantage in terms of understanding or using the current rhetoric.

*Get out there…on the street, in the stores, at the diners, at a different real job every day and town hall meetings. They should be prepared to receive the grief, and do so with humility. And while they are at it, listen. Carefully.

If they don’t engage and listen, they’ll be remembered as the Republicans who joined a host of arrogant liberal Democrats involuntarily retired by conservative populism.