By Alexander Bolton - 10/21/10 12:58 AM EDT
In another potentially troubling sign for Democratic candidates, three
in five independent voters in key House districts say Congress’s
Democratic leadership is to the left of them on the political spectrum.
The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll found that 61 percent of likely independent voters in 10 battleground House districts — a critical swing demographic — think the leadership under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is more liberal than they are.
“That’s a very significant finding that tells you where independents are likely to go,” said Mark Penn, president of Penn Schoen Berland, which conducted the poll. “In terms of independents, Reid and Pelosi are viewed as out of step.”
Penn’s firm conducted phone interviews with 4,276 likely voters in 10 battleground House districts from Oct. 9 to Oct. 17. The poll surveyed voters in Arizona, Illinois, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and had a margin of error of 1.5 percent for the aggregate sample.
The survey found that even 23 percent of likely Democratic voters consider Reid and Pelosi more liberal than they, the voters, are.
Many political observers believe Pelosi will step down from her leadership post if Democrats lose control of the House, and some Democratic incumbents say they won’t vote for her even if the party holds on. Reid, meanwhile, is in a statistical dead heat with his conservative, Tea Party-backed challenger, Sharron Angle.
The GOP tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to make Pelosi a campaign issue in 2006 and 2008. But the political climate is dramatically different this year, and Republicans now feel the wind at their backs.
Democrats acknowledge the campaign to portray Pelosi and Reid as liberal extremists is having an impact on how they are viewed but argue that those perceptions will not ultimately influence votes.
“The Republicans have made them sort of national figures in their advertising campaign and have done an enormous amount of advertising about them,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist and veteran of the Clinton White House. “Considering that’s the only thing that voters hear about Reid and Pelosi, I’m not surprised.”
Democrats tried a similar strategy in 1996 and 1998 when they tied GOP candidates to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Republican leaders Bob Dole (Kan.) and Trent Lott (Miss.).
“If you look at what we did in 1996 and 1998 to Gingrich, it didn’t work so well,” Lux said. “In 1998, Gingrich was personally very unpopular. He was more unpopular than Pelosi, and better-known. [But] it didn’t seem to matter much in individual races.”
Republicans lost nine seats in the House in 1996 and five in 1998. Political experts attribute the 1998 GOP setback to the unpopular decision to impeach President Clinton.
Democratic strategists say the prevalent view in swing districts that Democratic leaders are too liberal shows their party has faltered in getting out its message.
President Obama and Democratic leaders have tried to use their Republican counterparts in Congress as foils, but with little success.
In The Hill’s survey, 27 percent of independent voters in the 10 swing districts said the House and Senate minority leaders, John Boehner (Ohio) and Mitch McConnell (Ky.), respectively, were about where they themselves were on the political spectrum. Thirty-eight percent said the leadership was to the right of them.
“The inability to define Boehner and McConnell as out of touch with mainstream values was a strategic failure of the Democrats in the election,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran of the 1992 Clinton war room and president of NDN, a center-left think tank and advocacy group.
“The Democrats have done a bad job this election cycle defining the Republican Party as out of touch with American values,” he said.
But Rosenberg questions whether voters’ views of Reid and Pelosi will make a difference at the ballot box. He thinks many still hold a negative view of the GOP and that votes will be determined by geographic and demographic trends.
Republicans, however, think Reid and Pelosi make for effective talking points on the campaign trail. They have bludgeoned centrist Democrats in conservative-leaning districts by highlighting ties to leaders in Washington.
In Georgia, Rep. Jim Marshall (D) aired a television ad calling himself “a long way from Nancy Pelosi.” In Alabama, Rep. Bobby Bright (D) has run an ad promising he will vote to replace Pelosi as Speaker.
“Most Republicans running against Democratic incumbents are tying their Democratic opponent directly to Nancy Pelosi, especially in more moderate-to-conservative districts, and it’s working,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster based in Alexandria, Va.
Political experts say it has been relatively easy to portray Pelosi as far to the left because she represents San Francisco, one of the country’s most liberal cities.
Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said many Democrats have played into the Republican strategy by attacking business.
“A lot of the Democrats are resorting to economic populism, and the polling shows that voters aren’t buying it,” he said. “ ‘Corporate America’ is a Washington term. Outside Washington, that’s business and the people who employ you.”
Pelosi was an outspoken advocate of a government-run health insurance option during the healthcare debates and has often blasted the industry for defending its economic interests at what she called the expense of the middle class.
"It's almost immoral, what they are doing," Pelosi told reporters in 2009, referring to insurance companies. "Of course they've been immoral all along in how they have treated the people that they insure. … They are the villains."
Even while Republicans have attacked her on the campaign trail, Pelosi hasn’t shied away from the arguments she’s made during the 111th Congress.
"The choice for voters is that Democrats are working to move America forward on behalf of the middle class and not the special interests, while Republicans are pushing an agenda that is being funded by shadowy groups and corporations to ship good-paying American jobs overseas, turn Social Security over to Wall Street and Medicare over to the insurance companies,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said in a statement to The Hill.
Reid became a villain in the eyes of many conservatives after he took over as the Democrats’ point man on healthcare reform a year ago. A special deal he crafted to win Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) support for the bill — which would have directed extra federal subsidies to Nelson’s home state — drew widespread criticism.
Reid’s reputation as a partisan may have been cemented a few years ago when he famously called President George W. Bush a “loser” and twice accused him of being a “liar.” Reid later apologized for calling the president a loser, but not for labeling him a liar.