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Political strategists handicap fall election -- can Democrats wash away their problems in time?

July 1, 2010 |  1:17 pm

 Suds and votes

Concrete. Cake batter. Pick your metaphor.

There comes a time in most election seasons — unknowable in advance, only clear in retrospect — that a majority of voters make up their minds and little, if anything, can change the essential direction of a campaign.

Political strategists and election handicappers sometimes refer to concrete or cake batter to ask if that time is at hand. Is the cake baked? Is the concrete set?

This year, most everyone agrees that Democrats are highly likely to lose a good number of House and Senate seats. The big question is, how many? Enough for Republicans to win control of one, or even both chambers?

As a public service (why pay attention to the next four months of politicking if the results are preordained?) The Ticket interviewed a dozen of the smartest people we know -- five Republicans, five Democrats and two independent experts -- and asked:

Is the concrete set? Or is there still time for a major political climate shift, to mix metaphors, between now and Nov. 2?Election day

The following is the result of that highly unscientific sampling. Not surprisingly, Democrats are much more convinced than Republicans that circumstances can change and a seemingly bad year for the party in power may become somewhat less so. Some answers were edited, with the respondent’s permission, for length and clarity.

Charlie Cook, independent analyst: “Every week that goes by … the more dramatic change would be needed to change the trajectory of this election. The dynamics of midterm elections don't usually change this late. They can build and get worse, but they usually don't fundamentally change. My hunch is that this table is set, but it's not over ‘til it's over.” [Cook is also publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.]

John Anzalone, Democratic pollster: “No, it’s not set. From August 2009 until now Democrats have been on the defensive because we’ve been pushing a very activist agenda because of the economic crisis and the problems the country’s faced. The news media and Republicans have driven the debate on that…. In August, September and October we’re going to be able to drive the debate…. Our incumbents have the money to get out their message, to respond, to pivot, to contrast. Unlike 1994” -- the GOP landslide year -- ”there won’t be any Democratic incumbents who will be surprised. Will some Democrats be taken down because of the political environment… or because they didn’t run good campaigns? Of course. But they won’t be caught flat-footed.”

Scott Howell, Republican media strategist: “The concrete might not be set, but it’s damned close… If you look over the course of history, the off-year midterm [election] for the party in power is usually not good. And you’re seeing a lot of races that...

... shouldn’t be competitive for Democrats that are very competitive. You could have some cataclysmic event, but that’s what it’s going to take to bring about a sea change. … I am, by nature, pretty cautious. But if it keeps going the way it is, it could be very uncomfortable for my friends on the other side.”

Bill Carrick, Democratic media strategist: “There are a whole bunch of preconditions that favor the Republicans. But I also think, in general, we’re still at a point where there’s some definitional issues here. Republicans around the country have nominated a lot of people that are pretty far out there. .. We’re going to see how that plays out over time. Also, they have the problem of trying to promote people from [the House] to the Senate, or first-time candidates running statewide. Some people are going to be fizzles. The other thing is, how much of this anti-incumbency is going to pass Republicans by? It’s not really clear yet.”

Neil Newhouse, Republican pollster: “It’s not entirely hardened. But the direction and the fundamentals of this election seem pretty set in concrete right now. Can there be little changes in terms of intensity or in terms of magnitude? Absolutely. ... It could be an international crisis, it could be any number of different things happening. But barring some outside influence having an extraordinary impact on this election, the direction of this one looks pretty certain.”Political education

Mike Fraioli, Democratic consultant: “The answer is no. If voters are grading the two candidates and seeing which of them they want as their representative or senator -- as opposed to a throw-all-the-bums out mentality -- then we won’t lose the House or Senate… No one’s getting snuck up on. Unless you’re Rip van Winkle, Democrats saw this coming. There’s enough time where, if you’re raising the money and running a 21st century campaign, you can survive."

Don Sipple, GOP media strategist: “I don’t think the concrete is set … To me, a lot depends on the Republican agenda and what they have to offer. A certain amount is going to come out of Democrats’ hide just because of dissatisfaction with the status quo. To me, the x-factor is what kind of answers and what kind of agenda does the Republican Party have, because voters are skeptical, distrustful and cynical.”

Jim Jordan, Democratic media strategist: “By almost any metric, we're not sitting in a particularly comfortable spot, no disputing that, but nothing's preordained. Candidates, the races they run, and unforeseeable events will all matter an awful lot. Elections are about choices, and even though upper level atmospherics do matter, they're not dispositive… Good Democratic candidates running sharp, aggressive campaigns, who offer voters a stark contrast to what Republicans call ‘values,’ can and will win in a tough environment.”

Stu Spencer, GOP strategist: “No, it's not set. There's plenty of time for things to change. Politics is too volatile, communication is too quick these days for anything to be settled this far out. Oil spills happen, anything could happen between now and Nov. 2 to change the dynamic. I wouldn't go to bed secure with any campaign I was running today.”Ballots

Mark Mellman, Democratic pollster: “To some extent the die was cast in November 2008. Even then it was clear that Barack Obama was going to be presiding over a midterm with the country mired in difficult economic straits and in which Democrats had already made out-sized gains. That set up a dynamic that was almost certain to result in significant Democratic losses. ... What happens between now and November can still significantly shape the magnitude of those losses.

"If by November voters can look down the road and see the point of economic inflection, see that things will be getting better in the near future, we can hold those losses to the average range. .. 25, 26 seats. But if voters don’t see that point of inflection, if the president’s approval rating slides well below 50%, we could see even bigger losses."

Jan van Lohuizen, Republican pollster: “I think the concrete’s set. The Obama numbers are still sliding, although only by tiny amounts, and the generic congressional head-to-head numbers have been stable with a small Republican lead for quite a long time, since about November/December. It would take a major event to change things, and the president would have to handle it better than what he's doing now in the gulf.”

Stuart Rothenberg, independent analyst: “I wouldn’t say the concrete has hardened, because I just don’t believe in inevitability. But any fundamental change would require dramatic news. Not another speech, not the results of any one primary, not Congress passing a bill. The whole outlook of voters has to change from pessimistic, worried, angry, afraid to upbeat, hopeful, optimistic. And I just don’t see that happening.” [Rothenberg is also editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.]

-- Mark Z. Barabak

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Top photo: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times; Bottom photos: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times