Things have gotten out of hand when it comes to predictions of a Republican victory in the upcoming midterm elections. In recent days, talk of a GOP edge has turned into talk of a GOP blowout. Prognosticators have upgraded the coming political storm from Category 4 to Category 5. Republican control of the House has gone from possible to inevitable.
But Republicans don't believe it, or at least the insiders involved in the midterm effort don't believe it. As they see it, they're in a good position to pick up the 39 seats needed to win control of the House, but polls showing a huge GOP lead are simply wrong. “I'm assuming that Cook and Rothenberg and Rove and the others have got different indications from what we've got,” says one member of the House GOP election team. “I don't want to overestimate what's out there.”
“I think it's about even,” says a strategist involved in the GOP effort. “That is a remarkable place to be, given where we were in the '08 election. But it's about even.”
The landslide talk was based on two high-profile polls. One, from Gallup, showed Republicans with an unprecedented 10-point lead in the so-called “generic ballot” question — whether voters will choose the Democratic or Republican candidate in their congressional election. The other poll, from the Washington Post and ABC News, showed the GOP with a 13-point lead.
There are problems with both polls. First, Gallup's surveys have been pretty uneven this election season. Indeed, Gallup has since released a new poll showing the generic ballot question dead even, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in its finding of a 10-point GOP lead.
As for the Post poll, Republican insiders say it (uncharacteristically) skews things toward the GOP. The 13-point margin is among people judged by the Post to be most likely to vote this November. Among all registered voters, Republicans have a thin two-point lead in the same poll.
Which count is more accurate? Republicans usually score higher with likely voters. But the election is still more than seven weeks away. Counting only likely voters at this point “screens out Democratic groups that you know are going to be there at the end,” says the GOP consultant. “There are unions and African-Americans who typically get their information late, from leadership or the pulpit.”
In other words, those reliable Democrats will become likely voters soon enough. Former Republican Rep. Vin Weber, a veteran of many campaigns, predicts Democrats “are going to have some success in bringing their troops home and rousing their base over the next few weeks,” although Weber predicts Republicans will ultimately win control of the House.
As they look at the polls, some Republicans remember the painful near-death experience of 1998. In that year of scandal and partisan warfare, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted the GOP would pick up as many as 40 seats in midterm voting. That's what some of the likely-voter surveys seemed to indicate. But when election day came around, the GOP lost five seats, clinging to power by the barest of margins. A few days later, Gingrich, the architect of the party's smashing 1994 victory, resigned.
Now, the man who would most likely be speaker if the GOP wins, Rep. John Boehner, is disdaining talk of a Republican rout and campaigning virtually 24/7. In the last couple of weeks, Boehner has stumped for Republicans in North Dakota, California, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa, as well as tending his own political fences in Ohio. “Thirty-nine seats is a very steep hill to climb,” says Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith. “Obviously, earning back the majority is our goal, but no one is taking anything for granted.”
Some of the talk downplaying the GOP lead may be counterspin to ensure Republicans don't become overconfident. “We don't want to cause our voters to get lax and think we've got it,” says the member of the election team. But Republicans are also genuinely concerned about peaking too soon. “The notion of a wave that is already large and is going to build the next six or seven weeks into a massive Republican triumph is not, I think, accurate,” says Weber.
Perhaps the best way to characterize the GOP election team now is confident but nervous — confident that the basic trends of the election are going their way but nervous at the talk of a runaway victory. Be on guard against irrational exuberance, they're telling supporters — and be sure to vote on Nov. 2.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.