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

By Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse
Sunday, January 24, 2010; B01

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.

Brown and McDonnell were upbeat and optimistic, and presented a clear picture of why they were running. And they didn't get pushed off course.

Obama no longer walks on water, but don't be disrespectful.

The president's health-care plan was a net negative -- not just in Virginia, but also in Massachusetts, where a week before the election we found that 56 percent of voters preferred to start over with a new approach to health-care reform rather than pass the current proposal. Massachusetts voters still like Obama personally -- Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio's election-night survey found he had a 59 percent favorable rating -- but his presence, once deemed godlike, now does nothing for Democratic candidates.

Obama visited Virginia twice, New Jersey three times and Massachusetts once to stump for his party's contenders, and he was used in all three races in TV ads, direct mail and robocalls. Yet his impact on Democratic turnout and intensity was largely flat. After Obama went to Norfolk the week before the Virginia vote, Deeds got no bump in turnout intensity among base Democrats or African Americans. For the next few days, our tracking showed that it was as though nobody noticed Obama's visit.

In Massachusetts, while the national media spotlight and Obama's appearance helped increase Democratic intensity in the race, we found no evidence that independent voters were moved to support Coakley as a result. In a testament to the passion of Brown's supporters, his campaign team, in a mere 18 hours, pulled together a rally that attracted more than 3,000 people on the same day as Obama's visit.

The lesson for GOP midterm hopefuls: Welcome the president to your state. Stage counter-rallies and highlight doubts about his policies, but do not attack him personally. Show respect for the man and the office, but shine a bright light on your substantive differences. (A corollary to that is that George W. Bush is now firmly in the electorate's rearview mirror. If Democrats couldn't make him resonate in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Northern Virginia, it's not going to work elsewhere, except maybe Manhattan and Los Angeles.)

The Republican base is fired up.

After more than three years in the wilderness, GOP voters are chomping at the bit. Virginia Republicans were consistently more interested in the election -- by 20 points -- than Democrats throughout our daily October tracking polls. In Massachusetts, even after Obama came to the state, Republicans were seven points more interested. Nationally, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that voters who rate their interest in this fall's elections as a nine or a 10 on a one-to-10 scale prefer GOP control of Congress by 15 points.

So, who's going to show up in November -- a group brimming with enthusiasm, or the Obamabots who surged to the polls in 2008, but who hadn't voted previously in big numbers and show little interest now? Republican candidates must harness that energy to build a grass-roots -- and netroots -- army.

The themes of economic responsibility, jobs and fighting back against Obama's reckless spending and government overreach resonated with the Republican base in Virginia and Massachusetts. The base is apoplectic over the expansion of government power in Washington, so they are ready to get involved in a way they were not in 2008.

Ultimately, it's all about the independents.

It's great to have the base excited, but Republican candidates were shellacked in 2006 and 2008 among independent voters (losing 57 to 39 percent in the midterm vote and 51 to 43 percent two years later). By contrast, McDonnell won 66 percent of independents in the Virginia governor's race, while Brown was leading 65 percent to 26 percent among Massachusetts independents in our final tracking.

Independents believe the country is on the wrong track, and they want balance in Washington rather than overwhelming control of government by one party. A Public Policy Polling survey just before the Massachusetts election found that 20 percent of voters did not like either party, but those voters opted for Brown by 71 to 23 percent. If the country is experiencing a referendum on the party in power, independents are voting for change.

McDonnell's campaign targeted independents, particularly in Northern Virginia, who responded to messages about jobs and fiscal responsibility. Brown, meanwhile, ran as an independent-minded candidate and a "Scott Brown Republican," as he called himself. Among independent women (a problematic group for Republicans in recent elections), Brown managed to turn a nine-point deficit into a 31-point lead in just 10 days. In his victory speech, Brown called his election a great triumph for Massachusetts's independent majority.

Republican candidates who win independents will take the oath of office -- period.

Deflect negative attacks and get back to your message.

Deeds and Jon Corzine of New Jersey started their negative assaults early; Coakley went negative late. None found the Goldilocks timing. But huge credit is due to the Republican campaigns in all three states: They responded to the attacks but stayed on message.

In Virginia, for example, the gubernatorial race was rocked by The Washington Post's initial story and continued coverage of McDonnell's graduate school thesis, and Deeds made it a key element of his campaign. The McDonnell campaign was rightfully consumed by the issue; a failure to respond would have resulted in a very problematic final two months. McDonnell's strategy team decided to fight back on the idea that the 20-year-old paper showed that the candidate was against working women. (Our polling and focus groups found that voters thought the thesis was from a different time and had little to do with the challenges facing the state.)

Still, it was not until voters saw the evidence with their own eyes -- through two television ads, one featuring the candidate's daughter Jeanine and the other featuring women McDonnell had appointed or worked with on important policy matters -- that they felt comfortable and moved past the controversy.

For the midterms, rest assured that negative attacks are coming; they're all the Democrats have this year. They don't want to run on their record of lost jobs, special payoffs for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), and government control of car companies and health care. Remember, trends are trends until they change, and the trends of the past few years have been wiped away. For Republicans, it's simple now: Stand strong, tell the truth, and remind voters why they should vote for you.

Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse are partners at Public Opinion Strategies. Bolger served as the pollster for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's campaign, and Newhouse served as the pollster for Sen.-elect Scott Brown's campaign in Massachusetts.

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