Something strange is going on in the election campaign.
Former president Bill Clinton seems to look for every opportunity to undermine the sitting president of his own party. His former political aides publish a memorandum saying the White House message strategy is failing. The morning reports have the press corps dismissing President Obama’s supposedly major speech in Ohio Thursday as a windy nothing-burger.
Everyone agrees that the president has had one bad day after another, beginning more or less with Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election, the first governor in American history to survive a recall effort. Did that Democratic recall loss throw the White House off its game? Did it prompt the Clinton people to sound Paul Revere-like alarms to the soldiers within their party’s ranks that the GOP army was coming and everyone had better get out of bed and get cracking?
Here is what is strange. All this bad news comes as the Real Clear Politics average of all polls shows the president still ahead of former Gov. Mitt Romney. Usually politicians don’t push the panic button when they lead in the polls.
True, the Democrats’ margin has shrunk from something like seven points in late February to 1.2 percent today—a spread within the margin of error. But Mr. Obama has remained consistently ahead.
The margin of the Walker victory surprised Democratic Party pros. They tried to cover how bad it was by blaming spending unleashed via the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. But as many have already pointed out, if Citizens United had any impact (the Wisconsin election fell under state rather than federal law after all), it was to favor the Democrats. Walker’s funds came from individuals, and individuals have long had no legal restrictions on what they could give in independent expenditures. His opponent, Tom Barrett, relied heavily on union money, which Citizens United did in fact legally unleash.
So you had to give the Democrats credit in those early hours after the polls closed for finger pointing. They were ready to say anything so as not to acknowledge that, despite a campaign of unprecedented volume and ferocity, the voters had rejected them and their positions. But for getting their message out, just those days last year of closing down the entire state government with demonstrations in the capitol building were worth ten of millions dollars in advertising. Adding everything up, they went into the election with the greater resources.
But that margin. Polls had shown a much tighter race.
All of a sudden, the ghost of elections past is haunting the president and his party. In 1980, in 1994, in 2004—in other words, in big Republican years over the past three-plus decades—the GOP has polled much weaker than its final vote.
Why? Late deciders may be part of the answer, but only part.
Something more is almost surely going on. Here’s my guess as to what.
Particularly in big years when the party is pulling in or turning out occasional rather than reliable party voters, part of the GOP vote is invisible to pollsters. In Wisconsin—maybe everywhere—there may be reluctance among union members to acknowledge that they will cast their ballot for candidates and the party their leadership so virulently opposes.
Then, too, people tend to see pollsters as extensions of the media. Many conservatives distrust the media, seeing it (for good reason) as adversarial to all they support. So they may not want to be candid with questioners.
Whatever the reason, the big miss by pollsters in Wisconsin raises the question: Could there be a similarly invisible Romney vote in play this year? Almost alone among major pollsters, Scott Rasmussen is showing Romney ahead now. I have heard some pollsters suggest that his 100 percent automated questioning might skew the results away from the Democrats, whose minority supporters may not want to respond to machine calls.
But maybe it goes the other way. Maybe reticent Republican voters are more confident of their anonymity and the objectivity of questions coming from a machine voice and entered responses.
But whatever the technical factors at play, the invisible-to-pollsters Walker support in Wisconsin suggests that President Obama is facing the same phenomenon nationally.
And why not?
Heart-stopping increases in government spending, dangerous-to-the-national-welfare run ups in deficits and national debt, plummeting labor force participation rates (thanks to almost invisible jobs growth), trampling rule of law including transparent attempts to intimidate the Supreme Court in the Obamacare case, fumbling foreign policy justified as “lead from behind” which appears to really mean “don’t lead at all,” and, oh, yes, a 40 percent drop in family net worth: Looked at objectively, shouldn’t this record spell disaster at the polls for the party in power?
The real question is not “Why are Democrats and their friends hitting the panic button now?” It is “Why has it taken them so long?”