Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Reading Way Too Much Into the Latest Missouri Senate Poll

Despite their feelings about "The Wave," Public Policy Polling has a well-deserved reputation as the most "fan-friendly" pollster around. By this I mean that they have an active and amusing Twitter presence; they're generous and transparent with their data; and they give the people what they want, most recently turning around a Missouri Senate poll only 24 hours after Republican candidate Todd Akin claimed that "legitimate rape" doesn't result in pregnancy. PPP's poll, conducted Monday night, found that Akin remained ahead of incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill 44% to 43%.

Prior to Akin's mega-gaffe, my personal assessment of the race had been that it leaned Republican. After his comments, I commented on Twitter that I believed the race had shifted—to "teeters Republican," reflecting my opinion that the fundamentals in Missouri still favor Republicans but that Akin had brought them precariously close to the brink of defeat. I've since been surprised by the volume, speed, and intensity of the wrath that has come down on Akin, as well as the boldness of predictions from highly credible pundits that the incident would dramatically shift the electoral landscape in McCaskill's favor. In finding a virtually tied race, then, the new PPP poll—while hardly the final word on the matter—was reassuring in the sanity it seemed to restore. Gaffes—short of performing the Nazi salute—don't just erase candidacies overnight.

In their blog post on the most recent poll, PPP rightly points out that Missouri's, and the country's, increased polarization means that even major campaign revelations have a minimal impact on the horse race; voters are simply too dug into their respective sides to budge. (We see that with the remarkably consistent numbers in the presidential race too.) A direct comparison to the last time PPP surveyed a McCaskill/Akin head-to-head reveals almost no change—from Akin 45%, McCaskill 44% to the current Akin 44%, McCaskill 43%.

However, that poll was conducted in late May—before Akin's gaffe, sure, but also before the Republican primary, before the health-care ruling, before a lot of things. So that does leave plenty of room for the possibility that there has been volatility in the meantime—specifically, that Akin built himself a solid lead after May, only to see it evaporate in the past couple days after shooting himself in the foot. While we can never know for sure, a dive into the crosstabs of the two PPP polls provides some clues.

First, what may be most obvious (and what PPP themselves point immediately to) is Akin's favorability rating. Democrats and liberals dislike him and always have—but among McCain voters, his favorability went from 34/10 in May to 40/39 today. In other words, even Republicans who are getting to know this guy aren't liking him. However, they are still voting for him, at a 70/10 clip. This is hyperpartisanship in play and suggests that, while the incident didn't come without an effect, it isn't necessarily translating into people's votes.

To see movement in that arena, a better crosstab to look at is gender; Akin's comments were, after all, consistent with the "war on women" meme. Back in May, Akin didn't suffer from much of a gender gap. Among women, he trailed McCaskill 45% to 43%; among men, he was ahead 46% to 44%. Yet today, unsurprisingly, tells a very different story. If women were the only voters, Akin would currently lose to McCaskill 49% to 39%. However, Akin is up 50% to 36% (!) with men, even after Legitimate-Rape-Gate.

While I have no trouble believing that the cratering support of women is linked to this scandal, it is doubtful that Akin's "legitimate rape" claim actually boosted his support among men. (Interestingly, men were actually more likely to say that those comments were inappropriate and to "strongly disagree" with them, according to the survey—by about 10 percentage points!) Therefore, something else must have changed in the months between polls.

The simplest theory is that, sometime between May and August, Akin's support among men ballooned while his support among women did not—then, this weekend, his support among women took a major hit, resulting in the disparity we see today. Indeed, given the gender splits on the appropriateness of Akin's comments, it's very possible that his already excellent statistics with men were even better before this controversy. If you assume that his support among women had remained split evenly down the middle until the "legitimate rape" incident—a reasonable assumption, given that those stats moved in the "right" direction between polls—that would be enough to have given Akin a sizable overall lead had PPP polled the race just a week or two ago. While they are different polling firms and a direct comparison is impossible, this jibes with the picture of the race painted by Mason-Dixon in late July. That poll found Akin ahead of McCaskill 49% to 44%.

Maybe, then, Akin did take a statistically significant hit from his controversial comments about rape—and if you're a Republican, it has to be worrisome that that's just after one day of fallout. But since we made an assumption that the gaffe accelerated Akin's current gender gap, this may just be an instance of a mathematical identity. What actually seems like a safer conclusion to draw is that, whether Akin has experienced a drop in the past few days or not, he does not have much further to fall. The political crosstabs reveal that Republicans are loath to abandon their candidate, even if they despise him, and that McCaskill can't count on picking up more support there. Meanwhile, the gender crosstabs reveal that virtually every non-Republican woman is already voting against him. Other, traditionally strongly Republican slices of the population will have to start abandoning Akin for his support to fall below its current threshold. Unless McCaskill can start making inroads with men and McCain voters, Akin should continue to be viewed as extremely competitive.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Bleeding Kansas

Electoral success can be a double-edged sword. If a political party is too dominant—to the point of pushing out the other major party (and therefore the other major dissenting voice)—new disagreements and new fissures inevitably pop up. In the worst-case scenario, it can lead to all-out intra-party war.

This is the situation that the Kansas Republican Party finds itself in today. In that state, Republicans control both US Senate seats, all four US House seats, the governorship, 92 of 125 State House seats, and 32 of 40 State Senate seats. However, this seemingly advantageous position has given way to an irreparable schism in the party between moderate Republicans, who claim the "establishment" mantle, and conservative Republicans, led by Governor Sam Brownback.

It has gotten so bad that, despite Republicans' overwhelming numbers in the State Senate, it is actually the progressives and moderates who control the chamber—a European-style coalition of the body's eight Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans who have evidently concluded that they share more in common with the average left than the hard right. Indeed, in Kansas, party labels don't even begin to tell the full story—something unique in American politics today.

With the moderate coalition in the State Senate the only obstacle to enacting Governor Brownback's deeply conservative agenda (e.g., union busting and spending cuts), the intra-party schism has turned ugly—a modern political equivalent of the pre–Civil War Bleeding Kansas. Enraged conservatives, accusing their moderate colleagues of disloyalty to the cause, have actively tried to purge their fellow Republicans from elected office. Similar to the establishment-versus–Tea Party dynamic in other states, it has resulted in many moderate-versus-conservative Republican primaries for State Senate across the Sunflower State. Yet Kansas has taken it to a degree that the Tea Party wouldn't dare; the bizarre scenes include labor unions draping their arms around moderate Republicans, Democrats actively campaigning and voting for the same, and conservatives attempting to tie "moderates" (who are still probably to the right of John McCain) to "socialist" President Barack Obama. Things are so heated that state senators representing roughly 70,000 people each are raising millions of dollars. (It doesn't hurt that the Koch brothers are based out of Kansas.)

It all comes to a head tonight—primary election night in Kansas. Because Republicans are overwhelmingly favored to win in most districts, and because Kansas state senators serve non-stacked four-year terms, tonight will determine whether the moderates or the conservatives control the Kansas State Senate until 2017. For Kansas residents, the stakes are high; for the rest of us, the state provides a fascinating view on the consequences of one-party control and the extremities to which the current trend of polarization can take us.

Polls close in Kansas tonight at 7pm local time—that's 8pm Eastern in most of the state, but 9pm Eastern in a small sliver on its western edge. Only the State Senate, where there are currently eight Democrats, 16 moderate Republicans, and 16 conservative Republicans, is in danger of switching control (but not, of course, parties!).

Here are the races to watch to see which faction will seize control. Because these things aren't really black and white, it's estimated that three or four conservative gains would be enough for them to seize power.

Seats Currently Held By Moderates

District 7: Kay Wolf (moderate) vs. David Harvey (conservative). This is an open seat; Senator Terrie Huntington is retiring. Wolf, who is a state representative already, is probably the slight favorite.

District 8: Tim Owens (moderate) vs. Jim Denning (conservative). Owens is running for reelection and is a big voice for the moderates, so the conservatives will love it if they can pick him off.

District 11: Pat Colloton (moderate) vs. Jeff Melcher (conservative). This is an open seat being vacated by moderate Senator John Vratil. It will be one of the more competitive races in the state.

District 20: Vicki Schmidt (moderate) vs. Joe Patton (conservative). Schmidt is the current Assistant Majority Leader, but because Patton has support from prominent conservatives like Secretary of State Kris Kobach, this will be another nail-biter.

District 22: Roger Reitz (moderate) vs. Bob Reader (conservative). Senator Reitz is lucky that Reader is splitting the conservative vote with a third candidate, Joe Knopp.

District 24: Pete Brungardt (moderate) vs. Tom Arpke (conservative). Brungardt is the incumbent here, while Arpke is a current state rep.

District 25: Jean Schodorf (moderate) vs. Michael O'Donnell (conservative). The catch here is that, if incumbent Senator Schodorf loses, Democrats would have a shot at a pickup here in November.

District 26: Dick Kelsey (moderate) vs. Dan Kerschen (conservative). Senator Kelsey is in less danger than some of his colleagues, but this race has still been targeted.

District 31: Carolyn McGinn (moderate) vs. Gary Mason (conservative). McGinn has been in the State Senate since 2005.

District 37: Pat Apple (moderate) vs. Charlotte O'Hara (conservative). Incumbent Senator Apple isn't the most moderate Republican in the Senate, but he is moderate compared to the extremely far-right O'Hara. This district leans Apple.

District 39: Stephen Morris (moderate) vs. Larry Powell (conservative). Morris is the current Senate president; needless to say, his loss would be a huge blow to moderates.

Seats Currently Held By Conservatives

District 1: Marje Cochren (moderate) vs. Dennis Pyle (conservative). People generally aren't taking Cochren's challenge to the incumbent Pyle very seriously, but this is a more moderate district—you could see Democratic crossover voting.

District 10: Tom Wertz (moderate) vs. Mary Pilcher-Cook (conservative). Pilcher-Cook is an incumbent seeking her second term. She is favored to win.

District 40: John Miller (moderate) vs. Ralph Ostmeyer (conservative). Ostmeyer is the incumbent here, and while he's considered the favorite, Miller has given a lot of his own money to his campaign.

Seats Created By Redistricting

District 15: Dwayne Umbarger (moderate) vs. Jeff King (conservative). Umbarger and King, both incumbent senators, were thrown together in redistricting. Umbarger is generally expected to win.

District 21: Joe Beveridge (moderate) vs. Greg Smith (conservative). This is a new district, but the member whose retirement made its creation possible was a moderate. Conservatives have a good chance of picking up this seat.