Continuing the Conversation with Charlie Cook

The past few weeks and months I have been writing quite a bit about my view, contrary to those held by many inside the Beltway and Charlie Cook specifically, that the Democrats' control of the United States House of Representatives is all but lost at present. Don't get me wrong, I am not so obtuse to believe that the political environment favors the Democrats. But I just don't buy the notion that the Republicans are on the verge of retaking the House in the upcoming midterm elections.

Yesterday I wrote a post noting internal Democratic polling showing one of the red state Democratic incumbents the Cook Political Report currently rates in the "tossup" category leading by margins well in excess of 20 points against named challengers. "If the Republicans can't even be competitive in an R+16 district featuring a freshman Democrat in a race Cook now labels as 'a tossup,'" I asked, "how, exactly, are they supposed to win back the 40 seats they need to regain a majority in the chamber?"

Charlie has been kind enough to respond with four comments on my post. I have included the full text of each comment below the fold, for those interested. Here are a few grafs culled from these comments that seem to be representative.

Jonathan, I think what this poll suggests is that Democrats in tough districts who have opposed the Democratic Congressional leadership and the President on just about every important matter, have a decent chance of surviving.
My job, having started the Cook Political Report in 1984, is to call them as I see them. We saw a big wave coming in 1994 but underestimated it then. In 2006 we saw one and nailed it. We saw signs of problems and began writing and talking about it last summer and see little sign that we are wrong. If more Democrats had the cover that Bright had, maybe we would be.
Yes, we have been writing "Dems in trouble" for about eight months now, but it isn't much different from when we were writing that Republicans were in trouble during the 2006 and 2008 cycles. And Republicans were in fact in trouble. Our job is to watch races individually and look for trends. If the partisans for the side on the short end of the trends don't like it, they typically attack the messenger. you can be sure that Republicans weren't happy with what we were writing in the months leading up to the 2006 election, but we were right.

All of the points that Charlie makes are fair. I don't dispute that the polling I cited showing a red district freshman Democrat presumed to be endangered nevertheless leading his GOP challengers handily involves one of, if not the most conservative Democrat in the House (though I do not know that this disproves my contention that if the Republicans can't win in an R+16 district they aren't going to retake the House this fall). I also don't dispute that Charlie was right about 2006, a prediction for which he should be credited (even if he was not alone in such a forecast). What's more, I appreciate that he came by to engage, not only with my post but also with the commenters in the thread. In fact, I would be interested in hearing more from him, specifically on a point I raised in my post immediately preceding the post in question (and in other posts) -- namely that if the GOP were really on the verge of retaking the House, why are so many would-be Republican chairmen retiring rather than waiting out a few months for their pending majority.

What I would like to note, however, is that while I don't dispute the particular points that Charlie is making, I still don't buy his overall thesis. This isn't the first time that the two of us haven't seen eye-to-eye. The last time he came on the site to comment on one of my posts, back in December 2007, it was to defend the projection made by his publication that the Democrats would pick up between two and eight seats in the House in the 2008 election -- a projection I believed to be too dour towards the Democrats, about whom I wrote, "I'd be surprised if [they] didn't net a pick up of at least 10-15 seats in the House next fall." As it turned out, the Democrats netted a 21-seat pickup in the House that fall. In May 2006, he commented similarly, downplaying my reading of his House race analysis as a major shift towards the Democrats (while, in fairness, also saying "one could reasonably say that the House is close to 50-50, perhaps a bit better for Democrats"). Earlier that year he stopped by MyDD to comment on a post I wrote questioning whether the Democrats would necessarily be worse off in the event that GOP Congressman Bob Ney retired instead of running for reelection. Cook wrote, "If you are a Democrat, you need to really hope that Bob Ney does NOT retire." In the end, Ney did retire, but the Democratic nominee, Zack Space, won by a 24-point margin nonetheless.

My purpose in highlighting these exchanges is simply to provide some context to the comments Charlie made on my recent post. (It is most certainly not to prove any prescience on my part, a character trait of which my lacking has been plain to me for a long time.) In recent years, Charlie has stopped by MyDD either to defend his publication's projections from my criticism that they are not sufficiently rosy about the Democrats, or to criticize my projections for being excessively rosy for the Democrats. These comments aren't too dissimilar, with me stating my contention that his projections are too downbeat on the Democrats and him defending his views against such criticism.

Until we see the actual results of the 2010 midterms, Charlie isn't likely to convince me that I am being too optimistic about the Democrats' chances, just as I am unlikely to convince him that he is being too bleak. That's okay. But to the extent that the views represented in his publication have an impact on the outcome of the election -- that the Cook Political Report, like other similar journals, is read by contributers trying to discern how best to make their political donations -- I only wish that he were willing to exhibit some of the caution he showed on this site and others at around the same point in the 2006 cycle (when, again, to be fair, he also stated "one could reasonably say that the House is close to 50-50, perhaps a bit better for Democrats"):

While the vast majority of MyDD readers are Democrats and badly want to see a Democratic takeover of the House, our job is to be right, and we are often open to criticism for being cautious, but that is something that our subscribers over the last 22 years have come to expect.

At least from my vantage, it is not "being cautious" to state, as Charlie did just last month, that it is "very hard to come up with a scenario where Democrats don't lose the House." But we shall see -- and not so long from now, either (in just eight months, to be precise).

Charlie Cook Responds

Charlie Cook responds

Jonathan, I think what this poll suggests is that Democrats in tough districts who have opposed the Democratic Congressional leadership and the President on just about every important matter, have a decent chance of surviving.

But I think that you might agree that very few of the 15 other House Democratic incumbents that we (www.cookpolitical.com) have rated as Toss Ups, few of the 26 incumbents we have listed as Lean Democrat (our two competitive columns for Democratic incumbents) or for that matter, nto that many of the 40 Democratic incumbents we have listed as Likely Democrat, our "watch" list, have opposed the party, that is, put as much distance between themselves and their party, as much as Bright has.

I'm not sure you really want to make that point, do you?

Cook add

I should have noted that this past week National Journal released their Congressional voting ratings, a statistical analysis of 191 House votes last year, finding that Rep. Bright was the most conservative Democrat in the House. If you want to hold Bright up as an example of a Democrat in a tough district that seems to be doing pretty well in his fight for survival, I will agree with you. Having read some of your writings before though, I'm not sure that's the point you want to make.

I also might point toward the midterm Congressional election model that Emory University's esteemed political scientist Alan Abramowitz released last week on Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball site, projecting Democratic losses of 37 or 38 seats, an eyelash short of the majority turning over and not inconsistant with what we are saying.

And while you may not like what we are writing these days, since we were the first to write (http://cookpolitical.com/node/2345) on August 5, 2006 that it looked like the House was going to turn Democratic and that the Senate was 50-50, you might give us a little credit for maybe not being crazy.

The bottom line is that you are leaning on a very thin reed, using this one race to suggest that the Democratic majority is not in grave danger as I have been suggesting for months.

My job, having started the Cook Political Report in 1984, is to call them as I see them. We saw a big wave coming in 1994 but underestimated it then. In 2006 we saw one and nailed it. We saw signs of problems and began writing and talking about it last summer and see little sign that we are wrong. If more Democrats had the cover that Bright had, maybe we would be.

On the Media/Cook

Yes, we have been writing "Dems in trouble" for about eight months now, but it isn't much different from when we were writing that Republicans were in trouble during the 2006 and 2008 cycles. And Republicans were in fact in trouble. Our job is to watch races individually and look for trends. If the partisans for the side on the short end of the trends don't like it, they typically attack the messenger. you can be sure that Republicans weren't happy with what we were writing in the months leading up to the 2006 election, but we were right.

To the previous question about Iowa 3, Leonard Boswell's rating change from Likely to Lean Democrat, our ratings are not purely based on public polls (in the House there aren't that many), but also on unreleased polling, on interviewing experienced political operatives and reporters in each state as well as national party strategists. Our "Likely" Democratic and Republican categories are basically "watch" lists, contests that could become competitive, but aren't yet. the "Leans" are those that have become competitive but were there still is a clear leader. We now see Iowa 3 as a competitive race based on all of our research and reporting. But the short answer to your question is that we do not rely exclusively on published polls.

Cook again

When bpfish says, "If I recall correctly, few pundits really thought the Dems would take the Senate in 2006..." all I can suggest to Mr/Ms Fish is to look at the August 5, 2006 I provided above. Saying three months before the election that Democratic chances of picking up control of the Senate was 50-50, they needed six seats, they got six seats, by a margin, if I recall, of less than 30,000 votes nationwide. Doesn't get much better than that. I just don't get where this all comes from. We've been dead on the last two elections, yet there is some revisionist history that nobody got it right. Take a look. Our ratings and years of my back columns are at cookpolitical.com.

Tags: House 2010, Jonathan Singer, MyDD, Cook Political Report, charlie cook (all tags)

Comments

8 Comments

Rest assured that if Cook is wrong in November

Chris Matthews will still say he's the "best there is."

by masswaster 2010-03-02 10:50AM | 0 recs
Cook and Democrats

Let's prove him wrong.  Again.

I don't doubt that Democrats will lose a few seats, the math and the history points in that direction, and no one will really be surprised if we lose 10 House seats and a handful of Senators.

What I DO doubt is that there is anywhere near a 50-50 chance that Democrats would lose either the Senate or the House.

There would have to be either a huge negative event that reflected poorly on Democrats, a Dem Katrina, or a huge shift in the country's mood to move Independent voters to pull the R lever in as many races as the Republicans would need to make that happen.

I feel the mood of the country shifting, all right, but to me it's shifting in Obama's direction.

Contrary to the right-wing storyline, Obama's poll numbers have been very stable for months, in spite of untold dollars spent trying to discredit and demonize him, and all those around him.  Gallup and Ras both showed upticks after the Blair summit and this weekend.

Unemployment has stabilized and even dropped a couple tenths, jobs lost per month have all but stopped and are about to go positive, the DOW and NASDAQ are climbing steadily, the car companies are selling cars, banks are making profits again, corporations reporting better-than-expected Q4 earnings outnumber those reporting poor performance by a factor of over 100%.

http://www.scholarsandrogues.com/2010/02/12/corporate-earnings-look-pretty-good-dont-they/

The feeling of gloom and malaise in 2008 that followed Bush out of power is just not there, in my view, and who gets off a winning horse?

Democrats have to step up to the pundits and the talk shows and refuse to accept statements like Cook's, narratives that are self-fulfilling.  Wet blankets are thrown to drown out enthusiasm and momentum, and that is exactly what Cook and Rasmussen supply and what Republicans need: A hushed, low-key, depressed, fearful Democratic Party afraid to stand up for its own values and fearful of Right-wing attack dogs and Teabaggin thugs in their home Districts.

I applaud Halter for standing up for Dem values in Arkansas, I applaud Gillebrand for beating back the DINO Ford with some Democratic Party moxie, I applaud Nancy Pelosi and the terrific job of leadership she is doing in giving Democrats like Weiner and Grayson and Nadler the microphone and letting them talk a little trash.

Cook is happiest when the Beltway pundits, consultants and operatives buy, nod sagely and quote his reports at staff and policy meetings.  But this group LOVES the "Dems are on the way out because they are weak, feckless Mommy-staters" storyline; they've been addicted to that for over a generation, since they made their bones by destroying Jimmy Carter.

Charlie Cook could care less what we think and say here.  We don't buy his reports.

by dembluestates 2010-03-02 11:06AM | 0 recs
I saw Cook on Hardball last night

He put it best, I think, when he said "Can things change for the Democrats in the next eight months?  Sure.  But they have to change."  I don't think any of us would disagree with that statement.

by the mollusk 2010-03-02 11:27AM | 0 recs
RE: I saw Cook on Hardball last night

     Well, I'll disagree, if what he was saying was that if the election were today, the Democrats would lose the House. I don't see a loss higher than about 28 seats.

by Ron Thompson 2010-03-02 04:13PM | 0 recs
RE: I saw Cook on Hardball last night

I guess I was fixated on the "things have to change" part of it.  Can you point me toward a place where you lay out your prediction of 28 lost seats?  I'd like to see it.

Thanks.

by the mollusk 2010-03-02 04:16PM | 0 recs
2006

     Can anyone verify when Cook began to see that the Democrats were likely to win the House in 2006? My best recollection is that it was only after the Mark Foley scandal broke in late September that Cook and Rothenberg finally predicted a Democratic win--certainly not nearly as early in the cycle as we are today.

by Ron Thompson 2010-03-02 04:08PM | 0 recs
RE: 2006

August 5, 2006 http://www.cookpolitical.com/node/2345

several months before Foley.  And the GOP majority was not in the serious danger in March 2006, not until summer.  If you go through my columns http://www.cookpolitical.com/charlie-cook/columns you will see a growing narative through Spring and Summer of 2006 about growing problems for GOP,  not unlike what I began writing last summer and fall.  The difference is that things started getting ugly for Democrats a year earlier in the cycle.

by Charlie Cook 2010-03-02 11:16PM | 0 recs
Charlie Cook has another piece...

on how Dems will loose the House.

http://www.cookpolitical.com/node/5874

Possible, but still very early..I would suggest that everyone take a quick look at the polls from the UK and how they differ from the polls in December. So, anything can happen between now and November. I have a strange feeling that it comes down to the seats in NY. If the Dems hold the Gillibrand seat, they will keep the Senate. If the Dems dont loose more than two seats in the NY House delegation, they will likely keep the House, at least initially (if they have a five seat majority defections by some Blue Dogs could lead to a GOP House majority). Had Paterson not quit, he would have brought the NY delegation down and with that the House majority. Now, the big question is, does an impending Cuomo blowout carry the House Dems in? Are there any coattails? My prediction, when all is said and done, GOP will have a one to two seat majority in the House, and Dems will have a one to two seat majority in the Senate..and if Americans dont like gridlock, wait until that happens.

 

by Boilermaker 2010-03-02 06:30PM | 0 recs

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