Democratic strategists pooh-pooh the polls

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 4:02 PM

The Democrats, facing an electoral washout in November of the sort rarely seen since the campaign of Noah (D- Mt. Ararat), have launched their autumn campaign with one of the underdog's time-honored strategies: pooh-poohing the polling.

"I don't put too much stock in polls 55 days before an election," President Obama's top tactician, David Axelrod, told Meredith Vieira on the Today Show Wednesday morning.

"Look, I don't think the American people are sitting there with poll numbers at their kitchen table," Axelrod informed Erica Hill on CBS's Early Show.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine pushed a similar message. "I'm not particularly worried about some of the polls," he offered MSNBC's Morning Joe.

Kaine then took his anti-poll campaign to Philadelphia, where he held a rally with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. "Polls are polls," Rendell proclaimed, "but polls 60 days out don't mean a whole lot of, uh, things, uh, or have very much importance."

As campaign themes go, "pay no attention to the polls" is seldom a winner. And while it's technically true that the only poll that matters is Election Day, it's also notable that the public opinion surveys and the forecasting models are all pointing heavily in the same direction.

Still, the Democrats have few options but to fight the tyranny of the numbers. Polls and forecasts will become self-fulfilling if they further depress Democratic voters and convince them there's no point in voting.

This explains Axelrod's forceful response to NBC's Vieira when she read him the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finding a nine-point "generic" advantage for Republicans over Democrats. "Believe me, Meredith, people in America aren't sitting around reading the NBC News poll. They're looking at their bills," he said.

Around the same time, Fox News's Brian Kilmeade informed Kaine that forecaster "Larry Sabato says you're going to lose 47 seats right now and Charlie Cook says you're going to lose about 40 seats right now." Kaine's retort: "Larry Sabato said I wasn't going to be governor; he said President Obama wasn't going to win Virginia's electoral votes."

During another stop on the anti-poll tour, MSNBC's Scarborough challenged Kaine to explain how he'll avoid being "captain of the Titanic."

"President Obama was down by ten points in the Gallup Poll right after Labor Day in 2008 and won handily," he answered.

All this talk of polling met with Rendell's disapproval. In his warm-up speech in Philadelphia before Kaine, the governor challenged the pollsters' notion of an "enthusiasm gap" that makes Republicans more likely to vote.

"The enthusiasm gap is all the press talks about, all the polls talk about, and the truth of the matter is if we can bridge the enthusiasm gap we're going to win," he said.

And if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.

"The Wall Street Journal poll, which had us down 10 points in the generic congressional test among likely voters, among registered voters had us dead even," Rendell argued. "If we get those registered voters out . . . we will win!"

And if turnips were swords, I'd have one by my side.

Kaine picked up the theme after Rendell's introduction. "The election isn't about generic polls," the party chairman pleaded. "It's not about generic polls because they're not generic candidates."

Kaine, recalling his own victories after being down in the polls, tried to put the party's troubles in perspective. "People tell me all the time, 'man, you're DNC chair, it's a tough job,'" he said. "Look, I took a year off when I was many of your age and I went and worked with missionaries in the second poorest country in the western hemisphere in Honduras and I saw what a tough job was."

It had the makings of a new theme for Democrats in 2010: Down in the polls, but better off than Honduras.


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