Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tester-Rehberg a Dead Heat, says Billings Gazette

That's right, folks. The Billings Gazette has released the first poll for the 2012 Senate election and March 2011 isn't even over yet. Read the write ups of the poll here and here.

Generally speaking, polling a race this early does not tell us much. However, a race between two well-known incumbents can tell us a lot more than a poll in a race where either the challenger is not well-known or opponent has yet to emerge.

Here's how I read these data:

1. The Ground Game is hugely important in this race. Given the fact that both candidates are well-known and have strong bases of support in their parties (but see point 4 below), this election will be about turning out the vote. If the election were held today, the difference maker would be independents who--at the moment--are in Tester's camp (but, with sub-groups, it should be noted that the margin of error is LARGER than for the whole sample). Given that independents are less likely to vote and are likely to have softer levels of support for a candidate, each campaign will have to spend substantial sums persuading them AND convincing them to vote. These types of campaigns at the margins can be quite costly.

2. Rehberg will tie Tester to Obama. Tester will tie himself to Schweitzer. In 2006, Tester tied himself very effectively to The Schweitzer Machine in advertisements. Six years later, Governor Schweitzer is still quite popular and the unpopular administration is President Obama's instead of President Bush's. The poll makes clear that Montanans want national healthcare repealed (but they don't necessarily want the state legislature to block its implementation) and President Obama's approval rating is only 40 percent.

Congressman Rehberg, of course, wants this election to be a referendum on President Obama and healthcare--so he will do his best to convince voters to associate Tester with them. And, it should be easier to do this during a general election campaign. Senator Tester, alternatively, would be well-served to indicate how he is independent of the administration and many of its proposals. One way to accomplish this easily is to continue to stress his association with Governor Schweitzer.

3. Tester will tie Congressman Rehberg to the state legislature. It is clear that the state legislature is not popular in the poll: 61% rate the legislature's performance as poor. Of course, it is well-known that legislatures fair poorly in the aggregate when compared to the performance of individual legislators (this is called Fenno's Paradox in the trade). Nevertheless, some of the more interesting and controversial debates taking place in the state legislature--namely concerning nullification, defunding of healthcare, and amending the state's constitution--may prove problematic for Congressman Rehberg IF they remain unpopular. Congressman Rehberg needs the support of the Tea Party and the base of the Republican Party if only to avoid a primary challenge. He will need to walk a careful line during the general election, however--retaining the support of these voters without upsetting independent voters. Senator Tester is likely to paint Rehberg as an extreme voice for Montana as much as Congressman Rehberg will paint Senator Tester as an extreme voice. The difference, of course, is the direction of the ideological extremity!

4. It is noted in the Gazette article that both candidates have strong support among their respective partisan bases. I should note that in an election this close, the five point difference between the two among their bases is not insignificant. In other words, Tester's support among Democrats is five points better than Rehberg's support among Republicans. If a close election is about turning out the base, Tester is in a stronger position initially.

5. This race will as much about framing issues as it is about personality. Montanans are conflicted, and nothing demonstrates this more than how Montanans feel about energy policy. Montanans generally support the pursuit of alternative energy, they generally want to encourage the use of traditional fossil fuels, but they also generally want a clean environment. Which frame wins will, to some extent, determine this election. But equally important is how Montanans feel about both candidates. Style matters in the Senate more so than in the House, where elections tend to be more partisan affairs. In other words, who wins the likeability race and who appears to be the most, in the words of Richard Fenno, "one of us".

6. Finally, there is one important element missing from the poll. We don't know how STRONG the support for both Tester and Rehberg is. Intensity matters--especially in close elections. How persuadable are Republican and Democratic voters? Are they willing to walk through fire for their candidate? Or are they simply for their candidate because its early in the race and they haven't really tuned in yet?

Next week, I intend to blog about legislative productivity as a yardstick of congressional performance. This is an issue that both Senator Tester and Rehberg will raise: who is doing the most and the best job for Montana in Washington? A part of that equation is the types of legislation they have supported and pushed into law.

1 comment:

David Parker said...

I should elaborate on a point made above about intensity of support. A friend of mine worked for Mitt Romney when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the Senate in 1994. According to him, initial polling showed that 45% of voters were "hard" for Kennedy and 45% of voters were "hard" against Kennedy. This means that only 10 percent of voters were persuadable. The poll suggests that the race may be fought largely over independents, but in actuality, I doubt that either Tester or Rehberg's support is as polarized as Kennedy's. What IS true is as polarization has increased, the amount of partisan persuadables on both sides has largely declined. Because independent voters are expensive to persuade AND convince to vote, generally the name of the game has been to get out as much of the base as possible. If there is an enthusiasm or intensity gap, this often can make the difference in close races.