Parties play election expectations game 

By Julie Mason Examiner White House Correspondent

With few surprises left and the approaching election increasingly coming down to a battle over voter turnout, both parties are intensifying efforts to shape their rank-and-file's expectations of how the Nov. 2 elections will play out.

Whether the psyops-like effort to measure and manipulate how voters view the elections are effective for either side is questionable, but so far neither has been willing to risk non-engagement.

When White House press secretary Robert Gibbs went on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday and said, "I think that, come election night, we'll retain control of both the House and Senate," it marked a sharp turn-around for President Obama's chief spokesman.

In July, Gibbs appeared on the same show to predict just the opposite, that "there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control" of the House.

If anything, Republicans since July have improved their prospects for picking up seats in the House, although their chances for controlling the Senate appear to be dimming.

But the White House, hoping to goose Democratic turnout by countering perceptions that the race is already over, is pivoting from declaring the election a crisis to insisting it's still winnable.

"My suspicion is that a lot of the pressure on the White House to change the nature of the rhetoric probably comes from House and Senate candidates in close races," said Danny Hayes, an expert on political behavior at American University.

Ominous warnings that the contest is already over -- or not worth fighting -- is a risk for political leaders because it can either motivate voters to show up or persuade them their vote is already futile.

With turnout for midterm elections historically lower than in presidential years and with Republicans showing much more enthusiasm for the upcoming vote, President Obama is trying to shake out as many votes as he can in an election many see as a referendum on his leadership.

"There is no question it is a tough and challenging political environment," Gibbs said.

Republicans are similarly working to manage expectations. After touting their prospects during the early summer months, party leaders are now scaling back their predictions for the Senate.

"We have 12 seats in play," Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told "Fox News Sunday." "I'm not predicting we're going to win back the majority."

Hayes dismissed the idea that rhetoric from party leaders has much influence on voter psychology, saying issues still trump pre-election predictions by either side.

But Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said expectations can influence turnout.

"The Republicans are worrying about losing the expectations game and Democrats want to win it," MacManus said. "Both sides are trying to pre-manage the post-election spin."

By predicting only modest gains, the Republicans are hedging their bets against what polls show is a significantly higher level of enthusiasm among their party's voters.

Expressing more optimism, Democrats are hoping to boost turnout at the risk of having to explain themselves the morning after the election -- in much the same fashion Republicans did after losing control of Congress in 2006.

"Turnout is the biggest wild card still out there," MacManus said. "You have to anticipate that some strange things are going to happen."

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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Julie Mason

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