Like pretty much everyone in the state’s political community, I was surprised to see Linda McMahon leading Chris Murphy in a poll conducted last week. I generally take public polling quite seriously, and so I am obviously somewhat concerned for my party’s candidate. I remain relatively confident, however, that Murphy will prevail in this Senate race for three major reasons.
There have been 36 open seat Senate races in Presidential years since 1992. The party who won at the top of the ticket has won 29 of those 36 races. In the other seven, five of the winning candidates had won statewide office previously. Clearly McMahon has not. Also five of the winning candidates held on to seats their party previously occupied. The only two changes in party were achieved by previous statewide winners.
The difficulty for Senate candidates running ahead of the top of the ticket is further seen from the margins, with a 5.5% victory being the best any candidate could achieve in the face of a loss by his or her presidential standard bearer.That was Bill Nelson who earned his 5.5% margin in 2000 in Florida when Vice-President Gore was “losing” the state. Only two candidates overcame a 10-point loss at the top of the ticket, and both of those were candidates of the same party as the previous seat holder.
The race offering the best precedent for Linda McMahon is Senator Susan Collins’ victory in 1996 in Maine. It is not a terrible model, but it is one race out of thirty-six. A candidate who more similarly fits McMahon’s profile is Peter Coors, scion of the Coors Beer Company, who was the losing Republican candidate in Colorado in 2004. His failure was notable as the only case except Bill Nelson where a candidate lost a seat his party had controlled even as his ticket leader, George W. Bush, was carrying his state. Generally reviewing the history over the past 20 years is not kind to McMahon.
We have this week seen three contradictory polls from Connecticut. The one that got everyone talking was from Quinnipiac, which has McMahon up by three. Two other polls dispute that. Public Policy Polling has Congressman Murphy up by 4 points, and another poll, which was just in the 5th Congressional District, has a 10 point gap between a generic Democrat and a generic Republican with the Democrat being favored. This is obviously a very different result than the other polls since the 5th is the state’s most Republican district.
Thus, if it were applied statewide, the result would be far more favorable to Democrats. Rather than fiddling with these three polls, it is better to focus on the bigger picture. The Quinnipiac poll had President Obama only winning the state by 7 points. There have been 199 state polls listed by Real Clear Politics between when Mitt Romney semi-clinched the nomination on April 10 and when the Republican convention started. Of those, President Obama ran ahead of what Sen. John Kerry ultimately received in 168 of those 199 polls, or roughly 84% of all polls.
What this says to me is that, based on the current course, it is unlikely in Connecticut that President Obama will run behind the number Senator Kerry received, which was a margin of 10.4 points. Even if he does, sinking to 3 points worse is incredibly unlikely. Reviewing all the polls puts President Obama on a path to win the state by something approaching 15 points, maybe a bit less. This is down a decent amount since 2008 (when he won by 23 points), but it is still better to extrapolate based on other polls than to rely too heavily on too few polls in state. For McMahon to beat Murphy with an Obama margin that large would be almost unprecedented.
The Cities and the 5th CD
This is where I think the math really makes things very hard for Linda McMahon, as I outlined before. Because the race has gotten closer in the polls, I decided to take another look, and I come back with exactly the same result. Here is an important thing to remember about how Malloy won. Malloy won despite losing any number of what would be considered previous Democratic strongholds. Malloy lost Bristol, Vernon, Enfield, South Windsor, and Wethersfield — this list could go on and on. Malloy lost the 2nd Congressional District as a whole as well. Yet he still won. That was because there were 16 cities and towns in which Malloy got 60% or more of the vote, and in those towns he netted 84,938 votes over Ambassador Tom Foley. In 2004 in the same towns, Sen. Kerry netted 121,479 votes and in 2008 President Obama netted 187,390.
A reasonable range for Congressman Murphy’s margin over Mrs. McMahon in these towns would be between 110,000 to 150,000. Even if you take the low end and say Murphy leaves those towns up by only 110,000 votes, the question is, how will McMahon make up that gap? Well, Ambassador Foley almost won, so his experience is a good place to start. And this is where the big problem shows up for McMahon.
Foley lost the governor’s race by 6,404 votes, which means he netted 78,534 more votes from the other 153 towns. The problem for McMahon is that 38% of that, or 29,878 votes, came from the non-Democratic base towns in the 5th. Murphy, whatever you may think of him, has achieved some incredibly gaudy and impressive numbers in the 5th since he started running there. He even did it against the polls.
A poll from 2010 had him down something like 10 in the 5th, but it was woefully inaccurate and Murphy won by 8 points. I still like Murphy to maybe even win the 5th, but even if he loses the non-base towns in the 5th by say 10,000 votes, this is clearly not enough for McMahon. Even if she nets 20,000 out of the 5th non-Democratic base towns, she still faces a deficit of 90,000 votes. Here is an interesting time-machine experiment: Let’s say we give McMahon the margins that Shays and Simmons had in 2004 in their congressional races without the base Democratic towns. In the 4th, this is just Bridgeport. In the 2nd it is Mansfield, New London, and Windham. This would have McMahon netting 30,505 in the 2nd and 27,974 in the 4th.
It’s really hard to see Jim Sullivan supporters in the 2nd or Diane Farrell supporters in the 4th voting for McMahon; and there are grounds for skepticism that she can reach the Shays and Simmons numbers in Norwalk, Stamford, Norwich and Groton. As you can see at the end of this equation, even with all of these rosy McMahon estimates, going into the other towns in the 1st and 3rd, McMahon is still more than 30,000 behind, and the rest of the 1st and 3rd aren’t enough to make up the gap. Based on the Foley numbers, McMahon would still be roughly 18,000 in the hole. This means that either the 5th has to completely betray Murphy in a two-year span for a candidate they didn’t even vote for in 2010, or the Democrats have to nearly completely collapse in their base 16 towns, even with Barack Obama on the ticket. In theory it could happen, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
While McMahon may be on track to do better than her 2010 numbers, It would take a very rare occurrence for her to actually end up winning this race.
Jason Paul is a Connecticut Democratic political operative from West Hartford and a University of Connecticut Law School student.