Published Wednesday, October 17, 2012
It may be temporary and fleeting, but for the moment, the amazing performance of Gov. Mitt Romney and the complete flop of President Barack Obama in the first presidential debate has either propelled Romney to frontrunner status or at least made him competitive in critical swing states -- and it also appears to be improving the chances of other Republican candidates around the nation.
For example, in Florida, where Republican Connie Mack the younger is seeking a seat in the Senate over which his father once reigned, the race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has gone from a blowout for Nelson to a very tight contest.
The controversial Massachusetts U.S. Senate contest, which has seen Elizabeth Warren leading the polls in that state, has now become a contest in which the latest surveys show incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown leading by as many as three points.
And this shift in momentum is not limited to the Senate. Several U.S. House contests that prior to the debate were up for grabs or leaning Democratic have started shifting, ever so gingerly, in the direction of the Republican candidate.
Does this suggest a GOP surge in the Senate and House? The answer is likely no. But it does suggest that the Republicans can expect to perform respectfully in the Senate contests and hold the House by a comfortable margin -- that is, if things stay as they are at present.
Legendary speechwriter and political strategist Peggy Noonan suggested last week the impact of the lopsided outcome of the first debate between Obama and Romney would have a greater and more lasting impact on the race than expected. And with just weeks before the election, enough time is passing between the first contest and the next, which is one of those “town hall” forums that often produce little friction, that Romney and the Republicans can continue to ignite their base with the real hope of actually capturing the White House.
Since it seems all roads of comparison lead to Ronald Reagan, let’s give Republican readers some real hope by recalling what took place in 1980, when Reagan blew past President Jimmy Carter after their pre-election debate encounter and won in a decisive electoral victory over the incumbent Democrat.
In that year, there were plenty of Republicans seeking to upend longtime Democrats or take control of longtime Democratic-controlled states in the U.S. Senate. While the last polls in that presidential race basically heralded a Reagan victory, few could have expected the tide of Republicans who would march into the Senate that next year as newly minted officeholders.
The wave of voters who flocked to the polls and sent Reagan to the White House was so strong that it even allowed Republican Mack Mattingly to become the first Republican since Reconstruction to take a seat in the U.S. Senate representing Carter’s home state of Georgia. The Senate flipped to Republican control as the intensity of voters turning out for Reagan and against Carter swept the nation. Dan Quayle took a seat in the Senate, as well, defeating longtime incumbent Democrat Birch Bayh.
And so the issue is whether the turnout model that most pollsters have been using to weight their surveys is now missing another potential surge of voters who may be poised to race to the polls in higher numbers and sweep much of what they associate with the Obama years out the door.
Mind you, Republicans are not there yet. Just like the 1994 takeover of the U.S. House, most of these political tsunamis sneak up on us at the last moment and with little notice. But if the theory is true that many surveys this year overweight turnout for younger voters and underweight turnout for baby boomers, who now seem increasingly prone to vote Republican, then the two- or three-point margins we see in many contested races across the nation may be dead even if the Democrat is leading, or two to four points ahead for the Republican candidate who appears tied or slightly ahead in any given poll.
So much of this is on the shoulders of Romney, who single-handedly pulled a seemingly dead-in-the-water campaign out of the grave and gave it new life with a spectacular debate performance. And if history is any indicator, the vice presidential debate will have little impact regardless of who wins.
Yes, it is just weeks now until America votes, and there are hopeful signs for Republicans beyond just Romney. But so much can happen in those few weeks.