Are Democrats Really Doing Better?

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Are Democrats doing better? Are they closing the enthusiasm gap? Why are Republicans exuding less confidence about the Democratic Party's scheduled root canal on November 2?

There is some obvious perception-framing here. Republicans want to make sure that a 45-seat pick-up is seen as a "win" for the party, particularly when pundits like Charlie Cook talk about a landscape with more than 70 seats in play. (Of course, Cook knows that Democrats will win many of the seats, but when people hear 70, they expect 70). Precisely because the 2010 election is not a vote of confidence for Republican leaders in Congress -- it has become in so many races the opposite -- if Republicans win, they will need to claim a mandate. It won t appear. Expectations must be managed.

By the same token, nothing will hurt Democratic turnout more than a Democratic Party that telegraphs losses. If the election seems more competitive than it is, more Democrats will vote. If it seems as if their votes will be wasted, if Republicans are simply going to win regardless, then they won't. This is basic political psychology, but it always seem to kick in in early October.

Secondly, the Republicans have succeeded in defining their party in a way that is helping Democrats get clarity about the stakes of the election. This is to be expected in an era of intense polarization. It is why the national Democratic Party is not running for something; it is why they are running against the Palin-O'Donnell-Beck-Paul Ryan-Austerity party.

Thirdly, news coverage of the midterms has increased. People are paying more attention. Republicans have been paying more attention for a while, and now everyone else is. That, in and of itself, will bleed into the likely voter screens. Races that are naturally tight but don't appear that way because of the attention gap will suddenly seem tight. This is an artificial (but welcome) momentum booster for Democrats.

All of the above is mechanical.

Most of the major prognosticators are forecasting a two-to-one Republican sweep of the marginal districts, which is about right for a wave election. But importantly, Democrats are keeping these races, many of them they are certain to lose, competitive. The party has enough money to keep these races in play. It does not have to publicly abandon House races because, with about a dozen examples, their candidates are either within a few points of the Republican candidate, are tied, or are leading.   

In 1994, Democrats did not see the wave until it was right under their noses. In 2010, Democrats saw the eddies being generated before the wave was, and fortified their candidates with as much nutrition as possible. A lot of Democrats were able to escape bad votes -- with the permission of the Speaker -- because they'd face tough races. The Rahm Emanuel-recruited frosh class of Democrats is benefiting from the "sophomore surge" phenomenon.

It's time for a concluding anthropomorphic synecdoche. Democrats are hanging in there. By this point in 1994, they'd already fallen off the cliff.   

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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