Policy Perspective
A Donkey's Year
by Tim Hibbitts

As this year’s election staggers toward the finish line, it’s worthwhile to take a final look at the climate in which the campaigns are taking place. First, this is a deeply divided and angry country, and as things stand today, whoever wins the presidential election is going to face a difficult time stitching together a governing majority. The best thing that could happen, regardless of who wins, is that there could be some clarity in the results — that the new president could secure a clear majority of the popular vote (52 percent or more) and a substantial electoral majority (320 or more). As I write this, it seems unlikely that we will obtain that kind of outcome, though it is possible.

The fundamentals of the election continue to strongly favor the Democrats. The economy is shaky; 60 percent of voters continue to believe the Iraq war was not worth fighting, and the president’s job approval rating remains mired in the low 30s. That is a prescription tailor-made for an out-party landslide, yet few observers expect Barack Obama to win that kind of victory, if he wins at all.

Three factors are keeping the McCain/Palin ticket in the race. First, McCain has a reputation that he can lean on as a “different” kind of Republican. Up to now Democrat efforts to tie McCain to George Bush have not been as successful as Democrats hoped they would be. McCain has done a decent job politically of separating himself from the Bush administration, but he is still at risk on that front. Second, it may be hard to fathom, but Barack Obama is not yet that well-known to many Americans, and they are not sure enough or comfortable enough with him to vote for him. The third point flows from the second: Some of Obama’s problems stem from his style — he simply does not connect well with downscale white Democrats in the way that Bill Clinton did.

In that sense, Obama is having the same problem that Dukakis, Gore and Kerry had. He is more of a “wine track” Democrat than a “beer track” Democrat. But, it would be foolish to say that race is not a factor here as well. In places like southern Ohio, the Democrat contender faces a double problem. Not only are his stands on cultural issues problematic with those voters (something that would give him trouble if he was a white guy from Chicago named Barry Owens), but his race complicates his efforts to reach these types of voters.

Much has been written about the impact of McCain’s choice of running mate in the race. Sarah Palin certainly fired up the Republican conservative base, brought a needed enthusiasm to the Republican ticket, and temporarily confused the Democrats as to how to deal with her. But, she was a serious gamble for the McCain team and an acknowledgement that he is an underdog. She has also fired up the Democrat base, and while evidence is mixed on her impact on swing voters, the data that exists regarding that impact is not quite encouraging for the Republican ticket.

The debates will play an important role this year. If one team can dominate those debates, then they are likely to prevail in November. A split decision in the debates simply prolongs the difficulty for swing voters in deciding how they will come down on Election Day. When looking at the presidential race in Oregon, there is not a great deal to say. We enjoyed our status as a battleground state in the last two Presidential Elections, but we won’t be one this year. Published and private polls have shown Obama maintaining a lead in Oregon throughout the last several months and, regardless of events, that lead has held from a low of about 5 percent to a high of about 15 percent. Neither campaign has invested much in the way of resources in the state, a clear sign that it is not considered “in play.” Unless there is a dramatic event that fundamentally alters the national race, we’ll be a presidential backwater this year. If Oregon does become seriously in play, Obama has already lost. Absent that kind of event, look for the Democrat to carry Oregon, most likely by an upper single-digit margin.

The U.S. Senate race is another matter altogether. Gordon Smith has suffered a dramatic drop in public approval over the last two years. As late as two years ago, we had Smith’s favorable ratings in the mid 50s and negative ratings only around 20 percent or so. In the most recent survey we did for the Portland Tribune and Fox News, Smith’s favorable rating had collapsed to 33 percent; his unfavorable rating had climbed to 39 percent. Normally, this would be a prescription for defeat for an incumbent of either party, yet Smith is running about even in his race with Jeff Merkley. Smith has succeeded in raising Merkley’s negatives as well, and both candidates have more voters who currently dislike than like them.

I’ve seen this play before. It was in 1992 that an unpopular incumbent, Bob Packwood, made his Democrat challenger even more unpopular and eked out a fairly narrow victory. It appears the Smith campaign is using that same strategy on Merkley — to wit, maybe you don’t like me, but the other guy is even worse. For the Smith team, a helpful byproduct of this negativity may be that it drives down the number of people who actually vote in the Senate race. Like the Packwood team in 1992, their calculation is that driving anti-Smith voters to leave the ballot blank (or park a functional “none of the above” vote with Constitution Party candidate Dave Brownlow) is preferable to the risk that voters who are unhappy with Smith will vote for the Democrat. Expect to see lots more negativity from both sides in the coming weeks and a close (possibly extremely close) outcome in the Senate race.

The outcome of the Smith race may have ramifications for the 2010 gubernatorial election in Oregon. Congressman Greg Walden is looking seriously at a run for that office but is said to be doubtful that any Republican can win statewide in Oregon these days. Hence, he is watching closely to see if Smith can survive this year. A Smith defeat may well remove Walden from the governor’s race two years from now. Ironically, that might not be the right decision on Walden’s part. If Democrats sweep nationally this year (still a big if) and conditions do not improve over the next two years, there could be a snapback toward the Republicans nationally, and even in Oregon, in the 2010 election cycle.

We don’t see much likelihood of change in any of the Congressional districts. Four of the five seats are completely safe for the incumbents. The 5th District race could have been competitive, but it seems unlikely that Mike Erickson will be able to seriously challenge Kurt Schrader this year. We don’t expect to see much change in the State Senate (currently 19-11 for the Democrats), as the Democrats have taken about all the seats they can, and the Republicans don’t look to be seriously challenging in very many of the Democrat-held seats. The State House may be another story. The Democrats took the House in 2006 by a narrow 31- 29 margin and are looking to expand their majority this year. There are a fair number of contested races, but the best bet is for modest Democrat gains (perhaps two or three seats) that will give them a firmer grip on the House.

Tim Hibbitts is a partner in the firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc.

BrainstormNW - October 2008

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