President Obama will hit the campaign trail at the end of the month, visiting battleground states with the clear intention of keeping slim Democratic majorities in the Senate intact. However, the White House’s choices of states to commit political capitol to – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada – look like tossups or uphill battles today. The President chose the states with the longest odds to campaign in.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey has started to run away with the Senate race. The last poll to even show a tie in that race was a July Quinnipiac poll. In August’s polls, Toomey has between a 6 and 10-point lead over the Democratic candidate, Rep. Joe Sestak.
In Ohio, the story is similar. Democratic candidate and Attorney General, Lee Fisher, held a 2-point lead over former Rep. Rob Portman on June 28th, 2010 PPP poll. Today, the momentum has been entirely on Portman’s side. In August’s polls, Portman’ lead has varied between 4 and 13-points.
The Wisconsin and Nevada Senate races are more fluid. Both are traditional tossups with each candidate polling within the margins of error. The likely Republican Senate nominee in Wisconsin, plastic’s manufacturer Ron Johnson, polls one or two points over Sen. Russ Feingold in four Rasmussen Reports polls, while Feingold held a 2-point lead in a July 12th, 2010 Magellan Strategies poll and a June 27th, 2010 PPP poll. More polling after Tuesday’s primary should clarify the situation in Wisconsin further.
In Nevada, the outcome there is still anyone’s guess, and there is no deficiency of polling data. Neither Sen. Reid nor Sharron Angle have held leads in any poll that breach the margin of error since a July 14th, 2010 Mason-Dixon poll. Today, a one or two-point lead is all that Sen. Reid can boast from any poll, well within the margin of error. Every poll still shows Reid’s negatives outpace Angle’s by significant amounts, despite a Democratic full-court press to make Angle’s record in the state legislature radioactive.
Even stranger, all of Obama’s choices for campaign stops are the battleground states with among the lowest presidential approval ratings. According to a September 14, 2010 Fox News poll, the President enjoys a 39/55 approval rating in Ohio. He has a slightly improved 40/53 approval rating in Pennsylvania and a 42/53 approval rating in Nevada. Only in Wisconsin does the President have a salvageable 48/50 approval rating. The “I Need Your Help Once More” Tour may drive out some of the diehard 2008 Obama-coalition voters but, if today’s presidential approval dynamic holds, it will probably have a limited effect.
Today, the races in California, Colorado, Washington and perhaps even Delaware look like more likely wins for the Democratic ticket. The President has been cavalier with the prestige-laden “Obama Seat” in Illinois; Obama has planned on scheduling an advertisement for Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias, but he has no plans to appear in Illinois. Even New Hampshire, Missouri and North Carolina are respectably close races, enough to merit the President’s consideration, and they may yet. AP quoted Democratic Party aides saying that there could be further campaign stops planned, or even a second Wisconsin stop closer to Election Day, if that race remains competitive.
It is hard to believe that, given the stakes, the President would abandon these Democratic Senators to their electoral fates. Given the political capital Obama spent on Colorado during the primary races, even flying in for a Sen. Bennet campaign event, it is hard to imagine Obama abandoning that race. It is more likely that the President and the White House do not believe that members like Sen. Boxer or Sen. Murray face a genuine challenge. The West Wing may see the tight polls as early election-year noise which incumbents will bounce out of when voters become invested in the midterm contests.
What does the White House know that we do not about the states where they have booked appearances? In the age of the instant communications, and with a plethora of professional, independent pollsters all over the country watching the public opinion needle for any sign of movement– probably not much more than us. Last week, ABC Radio’s John Bachelor interviewed Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter about Obama’s campaign stops scheduled for late September and October. Alter related that these campaign stops are all about keeping a narrow majority in the Senate.
In 2009 to early 2010, the commentary class was confused by the President’s willingness to sacrifice political capitol in places where it would likely not have mattered if he had declined to participate. In the end, every candidate he campaigned for – Jon Corzine in New Jersey, Creigh Deeds in Virginia and Martha Coakley in Massachusetts – all lost. And with them went a small piece of the President’s influence over electoral outcomes. The White House celebrated Sen. Michael Bennet’s primary win over Andrew Romanoff this year like it was anything but an intraparty contest. The media-fueled narrative that the President channeled his 2008 campaign-self to affect a great upset in Colorado is again in jeopardy. There is little to gain and much to lose by putting Obama’s name on the line in these four Senate contests that appear to be either uphill tossups or likely losers for Democrats.
With the confusion about the White House’s campaign stop choices noted, the President is in a good position to keep the Senate in the Democratic column after November 2nd, if not firmly so. Republicans like Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are also planning campaign events around the country, but they are casting a wider net. States like Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Connecticut are on the list, as well as the President’s targets – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Understandably, Republicans need a sweep in the Senate, so they must campaign everywhere. The President only has to hold onto a select few seats to maintain the Democratic majority.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org