Navigating troubled waters

Last week, writing before Tuesday’s election, I laid out some lessons about public opinion that could be derived from the results that were to come. Nothing that actually transpired changed that analysis, nor revised my four antis. All four remain operative in the public mind — anti-incumbency, anti-establishment, anti-politics and anti-Democratic — even if those forces are not decisive in every race.

However, the elections of 2009 and the first half of 2010 also offer some early, and potentially vital, warnings to campaigns — cautions well worth pondering:

Things can change fast and late. While there may be some controversy about the exact timing, there is general agreement that Democrat Martha Coakley held a massive lead in Massachusetts, at least until three or four weeks before her loss to now-Sen. Scott Brown (R). Polls just four weeks ago gave Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) a 20-point lead over Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.). In a matter of a few weeks, our polling revealed that the candidate standings in Hawaii’s special congressional election were transformed from Ed Case (D) in first place with a significant lead, followed by Charles Djou (R) and then Colleen Hanabusa (D), to Djou in first, Hanabusa in second and Case languishing in third — a result replicated when the votes were counted.

In some instances, candidates are going far on relatively few of the ingredients usually required for movement. A few weeks ago, polls in Nevada’s Republican Senate primary put Sue Lowden in first place by 17 points over her nearest competitor and 24 points ahead of Sharon Angle. To be sure, Lowden stumbled badly with her proposal to barter chickens for medical care, but Angle now has seemingly vaulted into first place, jumping over two candidates who have had television advertising on the air while Angle herself has yet to take to TV to advance her campaign. It’s a rare candidate who beats opponents who are on TV without hitting the airwaves him- or herself.

Strong ratings don’t provide immunity. Once upon a time, incumbents with high favorability and performance ratings did not lose elections (except to those with much higher ratings). Not so anymore. By all accounts, Specter was enormously popular with Pennsylvania Democrats before his loss. Just a couple of months ago, 75 percent of Democrats approved of Specter’s performance, with only 18 percent disapproving, according to Quinnipiac. Similarly, a Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll, shortly before his defeat, showed 72 percent of Democrats held a favorable view of the incumbent while just 20 percent harbored unfavorable impressions. On the eve of his loss, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) apparently enjoyed a favorable-unfavorable rating of 58 percent to 36, according to his polling. These days, highly regarded incumbents are losing races.

A little negative in the close of the campaign is no longer sufficient. Not long ago, a surging but largely unknown challenger could be stopped in his or her tracks with a few thousand gross rating points of attack ads coming at the end of the race. Whether it is because voters have become more cynical or more savvy about such advertising, or because they simply refuse to have their demands for change thwarted, that strategy just doesn’t seem sufficient anymore.

Despite a ferocious assault in the last three weeks of the campaign, they still call Scott Brown “Senator.” A couple thousand points of excellent negative ads against Charles Djou may have slowed his advance to the House, but certainly did not stop it, nor did the Specter campaign’s seemingly devastating attacks on Sestak prevent the challenger from prevailing.

Polls and hard election returns provide convincing evidence that elected officials are operating in an almost uniquely hostile and uncertain environment. In navigating these treacherous waters, following the old maps may lead candidates to the wrong destination, and hewing to the old rules may lead to unwelcome surprises.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.