The “Against the Spread” Election

Princeton University’s Sam Wang thinks Democrats have a 65% chance of holding onto the Senate.  Republicans should be spreading that news far and wide.

Unfortunately for the GOP, most of the news media seems to take a Senate flip as fait accompli.  The concept of the “point spread” – a staple of fall once football season kicks off – applies to elections, too.  Expectations are the point spreads of politics.  For example: Conventional wisdom in January stated that Sens. Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu were toast.  But both are legacy politicians in states which favor such things, making the incompetence and indifference of their party’s nominal leader less relevant.  Fewer people than anticipated in Arkansas or Louisiana seem ready to link their November vote to the fact that the last year of the Obama Presidency has looked like a mix between a Jerry Lewis movie and that scene in Office Space where Peter stops pretending to care about his job.

Should Pryor and Landrieu pull off razor-thin victories, pundits will cluck that even in red states, Republicans were unable to win enough support to topple vulnerable incumbents.  On a national scale, if Republicans fail to win the Senate despite major media outlets anticipating a flip, there will be similar indictments of the GOP’s messages and strategies.

Now would be a good time to temper national expectations.  Party officials should talk about the lack of a national wave, while pointing out that frustration has been building for some time.  Political reporters should hear a steady drumbeat of phrases like:

  • “This isn’t 2010.”
  • “People are frustrated with all of Washington right now, we’ll see how individual races shake out.”
  • “A Senate flip would be pretty drastic based on the numbers of seats we’d have to pick up. We have some great candidates, but that might be a little bit of a stretch.”

A round of stories right around Labor Day throwing cold water on the national excitement wouldn’t be the worst thing (though it might have been better about a month ago). By framing a Senate switch as drastic, historic, and improbably, the GOP could have been in a position to claim an even greater popular mandate heading into 2015.

As it is now, a Republican majority is something the chattering class are expecting – which would frame even an appreciable gain of five Senate seats a crushing national loss.

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