Pollsters fill an interesting niche in today's political system. Beyond measuring public opinion and predicting campaign outcomes the work of a pollster is all about setting expectations. In the political arena, beating pollster's numbers is the stuff from which momentum is created and mandates for governing are made.
Wielded correctly, the "moral victory" of beating the odds can be more powerful than actually winning. See "The Comeback Kid," 1992.
After watching the polls this summer, the countdown to Election Day began to feel more like a countdown to a slap in the face for the Democratic Party. However, recent numbers buck this trend. In several states, races for U.S. Senate and Governor have closed within the margin of error -- leading many to wonder, could the Democrats actually steam the Republican landslide?
With the prospect of Republicans winning back Congress and winning two-thirds of the gubernatorial races this November, any wins for the Democrats would weaken the GOP's political mandate should they win Congress. In fact, defending just the Senate along with a few statehouses would be a moral slam dunk for embattled Democrats this season.
Unfortunately, on closer inspection the deck appears to be stacked against Democrats far higher than it may appear.
For example, in recent Illinois poll, Republican Mark Kirk (42%) edged Democrat Alexi Giannoulias (41%) by just 1 point, and within the statistical margin of error. However, of voters who said they knew both candidates the race broke for Kirk by a full 8 points.
We've found this pattern repeated in all of our surveys this fall. Among the likely voters who are familiar with both candidates in the race, the Republican had a statistical advantage every time. This says a lot about what could happen on election day, as it may foreshadow how undecideds will break over the next few weeks as they finally "meet" the candidates.
In Pennsylvania, we found Pat Toomey (45%) led Joe Sestak (40%) by just 5 points in the race for U.S. Senate. However, of likely voters who said they knew both candidates, the margin for Toomey widened to 8 points. Similarly in the race for Governor Tom Corbett (47%) led Dan Onorato (40%) by 7 points on a simple ballot test, but among those familiar with both candidates the gap nearly doubled to 13 points.
It's the same story for Ohio. Though Rob Portman has established a strong 10 point lead over Democrat Lee Fisher, among likely voters who know both candidates, the gap opened to a whopping 17 points. The race for Governor in Ohio has been closely watched as incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland (42%) has inched his way up the polls to close the gap his with Republican rival John Kasich (46%) to just 4 points. But again, among likely voters in the know the gap doubled to 8 points.
The bottom line is that of voters who know both candidates, races across the country are consistently tipping to the Republican. However, this is not to say that Democrats should put their Eeyore faces on just yet.
The true culprit here could be a possibly devastating disconnect between the Democratic message and what voters want to hear.
Back in 2004 George Bush ran on three words: "stay the course." These days it's difficult to articulate just what the Democrats stand for, beyond their general message of "it could have been worse" or "you'll be much worse off with those Tea Party Republicans."
Jobs and the economy are issue on with voter. All polling date points to that fact In Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania at least 83% of voters do not believe the recession is over and majorities believe the jobs situation will not improve in the next six months. As these voters have come to know the candidates, it's likely the Republican message of change (ironically) has been connecting with voters despite the Democrat's best efforts to tie the GOP brand to some more radical members of the Tea Party.
The prospects for Democrats seem grim, but these numbers also show that there's still some time for Democratic candidates to introduce themselves to voters. With polls tightening and down-ticket races blazing their own trail, it's clear that many voters are truly undecided.
With just a few weeks left it's time to drop those mailers, pony up for those TV spots and up those handshakes. Because at this point, even a small win would be big news for Democrats and have big implications for the next two years.