10/28/2010 09:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Republican Tsunami That Could(n't)

Anyone who tells you they know what will happen on Election Day is either fooling themselves or trying to fool you. Even the polls themselves are listing so many races as "who knows?"

There are, however, indicators worth noting. One of the most important is a recent, major poll that has gotten scant attention. More on that in a moment.

It's of course reasonable to expect Republicans to do extremely well. The opposition party almost always gains seats in a midterm election, anger is fueled by a terrible economy, and Republican voters have been highly motivated. Having a black president has a funny way of helping do that.

Republicans winning the House certainly appears likely, though I remain uncertain. In fact, as successful as the GOP should be, I don't think Republicans will do as well as most pundit predictions, washing over everything in sight. This isn't based on wistfulness, but specifics I've been writing about for months and watching.

It begins with two realities: First, polls before Labor Day mean nothing, because voters are paying little attention. Only after, when campaigning begins, as candidates respond to charges, and debates highlight differences, do elections churn into gear.

And second, it's easy to seem wildly popular when preaching to the choir. But entering the outside world, candidates at the far edges face a far less-accepting audience. And when those edges represent cutting Social Security, implanting human mouse-brains, and that violence is "on the table," it risks terrifying the general public.

And we're seeing the results of that. Campaigns and debates have brought about backtracking by many of these far right/"Tea corporation" Republican candidates. Denying that they said what they are on video actually saying, removing controversial statements from their websites.

It's one thing to say you want to throw the bums out. It's another to stare at a ballot and put an actual check next to "Sharron Angle," to represent you. Importantly, I'm referring only to independent, undecided voters here -- a significantly large, overlooked group in poll discussions: Something has kept them undecided, not yet willing to throw the bum out in exchange for someone who truly concerns them. In that private voting booth, civic responsibility stares you in the face.

Most Republican candidates, obviously, are not scary wing nuts. The problem is that headline-grabbers color the public's view of the entire party. They have made all Republicans the party of Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, Rand Paul and Carl Paladino.

That brings us to the poll, which Newsweek released last week.

Not only did Barack Obama's favorables rise six points, but his unfavorables dropped six, a 12-point swing. It's their second consecutive poll where his approval has risen, and now sits at 54-40 in favor.

Clearly, this result is meaningless in the specifics of this election. But clearly it points to a national sensibility. Consider, after all, had these numbers been reversed. We would have seen headlines reporting disaster for Democrats.

There was another result in the poll that is far more specific to this election -- and meaningful.

When asked what party the respondent "leans more toward" for Congress, the results among registered voters were:

Democrat -- 48%
Republican -- 42%

More importantly, when "likely" voters were asked, the result was:

Democrat -- 48%
Republican -- 45%

This is a generic question that also proves nothing. But it surely indicates a different direction than has been previously assumed.

Let's look at one specific. The Illinois 10th District. I don't pick this randomly -- it's where I'm sitting as I type this. And it's important, too, because it's the congressional seat of Mark Kirk, who gave it up to run for the Senate.

The 10th district has been Republican for its entire 95-year history, except in one four-year period after the Watergate scandal. This year, Democrat Dan Seals is leading by 12 points.

Again, it's just one district. Republicans are leading in traditional Democratic spots. But it shows a reality contrary to perceptions.

Indeed, despite Republicans holding leads in close races, just weeks ago many were seen as Republican locks. Russ Feingold had been written off in Wisconsin, but is now within five points. Same in Kentucky with Jack Conway against Rand Paul. Patty Murray in Washington had been behind, but now leads by three points. Joe Sestak, recently down by 10 points in Pennsylvania, is now tied.

In part, this is because issues are taking hold -- Republican "pledges" to cut Social Security, Medicare, health care and banking reform. So, too, is there a heightened understanding that the root cause of unemployment is Republican policies under George Bush. And increasing reports on the national Chamber of Commerce and Republican Party secretly raising illegal, foreign campaign funds have grown countrywide concern. Enough perhaps to help in the close elections.

None of this is to say Democrats Will Do Great! They won't. They'll likely lose serious ground. But there are too many indicators that will keep Democrats in a position far better than thought.

But honestly, Republicans could sweep. And honestly, Democrats could win close races because they are finally building their own motivated voters. And that's the wild card. Who actually will go out to vote? Anyone who tells you they know, doesn't. If Republican anger and fear swarms the polls, they'll create that tsunami predicted. And if the community organized Democratic network that brought Barack Obama into power is alarmed enough by the far right, we'll see a different result than what Republicans expect.

For all the reasons here, I believe the latter will occur. But "who knows?"

I'd certainly feel better about the election if I were a Republican. But then, if I were a Republican, I'd be so miserable the rest of the time.

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