What a Todd Akin win would say about politics

September 14, 2012

If Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) continues his campaign against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) all the way to November, he'll face very long odds. Yet he continues to run, driven by an apparent belief that victory isn't completely beyond his reach.

Is he right?

For Akin, winning would be very difficult, but not impossible. The most reliable live-caller polling shows support for Akin has dropped sharply since his comments about "legitimate rape" drew widespread scrutiny and derision. Yet recent polls conducted by automated Democratic pollster PPP and automated Republican-leaning pollster Rasmussen Reports have shown single-digit margins separating McCaskill and Akin. (Democrats, meanwhile, are conscious that if Akin stays in the race, it would help their chances. So they haven't hit hit him over his comments all that much lately, which could explain his better-than-expected standing in some polling)

An Akin win would be so surprising, that it's worth asking: What would it say about politics if he was elected?

(Diana Reese/Washington Post)

A few things:

* This election is even more a referendum on President Obama, the economy and the Administration's policies than we thought.

It isn't hard to link McCaskill to Obama. She voted for the stimulus and health care reform and has mostly been a loyal ally to the president. And she's running in a state where he is likely to lose.

Akin won't have the benefit of American Crossroads and the National Republican Senatorial Committee making those same arguments on the air for hi -- they have pulled their money from the state -- but odds are, he'll do it himself (albeit with a narrower reach and less money).

* Money isn't everything.

Money is the subject of endless discussion in politics -- and with good reason. It usually plays a big role in who wins and who loses. But if Akin wins, there is a case to be made that its importance was over-hyped in his race. Without the help of outside groups who have vowed not to help him, Akin is severely underfunded and hard pressed to find enough new donors to help him make up his deficit against McCaskill. If he wins, it will be a victory that defies the normal financial logic of campaigning.

* The national backlash was less impactful in Missouri than we all thought. 

Akin's controversial comments instantly became a national story, and within 24 hours the most powerful figures in his own party had turned against him at every corner of the country. But the criticism was not enough to force him from the race (yet) and if it is not enough to also send him to defeat, then the impact of widespread condemnation on how his comments were received back home will perhaps have been hyped up too much.

To be clear, for now, there's no reason for that believe that's the case, as the most reliable live-caller polling has shown a sharp drop in support for Akin in Missouri that has mirrored the national backlash. Missouri voters would have to make a pretty dramatic turnabout in the final weeks of the campaign for Akin to win. (The Fix moved Missouri out of the top ten states most likely to flip in the latest Friday Line.)

* Going it alone is not the end of the world.

With the exception of a few allies, Akin is a lone wolf. Campaigning is a team sport -- candidates rely heavily on surrogates, local supporters and donors to prop up their candidacies. Akin is short on all of the above. If he wins, it would defy a longstanding dynamic, and could even make candidates facing intra-party pressure in the future think twice about dropping out in the face of controversy.

Updated at 5:27 p.m.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Aaron Blake | September 14, 2012