Republicans can win the midterm elections. Two pollsters show the way.

By Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse
Sunday, January 24, 2010

After stinging defeats in the 2006 midterms and the 2008 presidential election, we Republicans were supposedly condemned to a lengthy penance in the political wilderness, searching for our souls and groping for big ideas to rival the new Democratic juggernaut.

Well, that didn't take long, did it?

Resounding GOP victories in New Jersey, Virginia and, most dramatically, Massachusetts have invigorated the party and revealed the perils of Democratic hubris. These were states where Democrats controlled all the levers of power: the governors' offices, the Senate seats, a majority of House seats and five of six state legislative chambers.

Apparently, the Democrats thought people had voted for them because of their agenda -- an agenda they really hadn't bothered to share with the electorate in the first place. And now, the party's bungling has resulted in the highest disapproval rating in Gallup polling history for a president after his first year.

We had the privilege of serving as pollsters in two of these three victorious Republican campaigns, in Virginia and in Massachusetts, and we found that the two races had many elements in common. Together, they offer a blueprint for how the GOP can keep the momentum going into the midterms this fall and beyond.

And while we're happy to remind our Democratic friends that no president in the modern polling era has seen his job-approval rating rise between January and the midterm vote of his first election cycle, we know that what happens in the midterms says little about a president's reelection prospects two years later. So let's stay in the moment, and right now, the moment is November. Republicans still have a lot of ground to pick up. Here's how.

The quality of the candidates matters most.

In two of the recent elections, the candidates themselves were the key factors. Bob McDonnell's campaign in Virginia introduced him as a family man focused on policy issues such as jobs and transportation; in Massachusetts, Scott Brown was an articulate candidate with an ability to stay on message -- on national security, health care and the need to change Washington -- even when he was being pummeled with negative ads. Both candidates were able to communicate that they were regular people with a vision for how to make things better.

Indeed, McDonnell's relentless focus on policy during the campaign enticed Republicans to select him to deliver the GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union on Wednesday.

Voters trusted these two Republicans them to deal with their top concerns, even on traditionally Democratic issues. On job creation, our polling found that McDonnell had a 49 percent to 35 percent advantage over Creigh Deeds, while Brown had a 49 percent to 33 percent advantage over Martha Coakley. McDonnell had a 49 percent to 35 percent lead on transportation, while Brown led 49 percent to 42 percent on health care -- yes, health care.

Both Democratic candidates made major missteps. Deeds never really defined who he was or what he would do as governor of Virginia. In our focus groups, voters shrugged or laughed when asked, "What is Creigh Deeds saying about himself to convince voters like yourself to vote for him?" When asked the same about McDonnell, they gave lengthy answers. Deeds's now-famous refusal to give straight post-debate answers to reporters about his fiscal policies tagged him not just as a tax-raiser but as a politician unwilling to speak directly.

As for Coakley, suffice it to say that first she was asleep at the switch, and then when the alarm woke her, she remained groggy enough to insult grass-roots campaigning, Bruins fans, Red Sox heroes and Catholics. Like Deeds, she ran a campaign largely devoid of issues. The most message discipline shown by the Democrats in Massachusetts has come during the post-election blame game, as the Coakley campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the White House have all gone negative on each other.

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