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Marty Lamb’s Lucky Break

A Democrat's gaffe helps a Republican underdog.

By 10.15.10

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BOSTON -- Tina Hood of Worcester said "it blew my mind" when she heard her congressman say, "I think the Constitution is wrong."  

Rep. Jim McGovern later called his statement a "slip of the tongue," but to Ms. Hood -- a citizen who questioned the Democrat during a debate Wednesday night at Shrewsbury High School -- it seemed more like a contradiction of his oath of office.

McGovern's words were one of those campaign moments that no one could predict, and which might conceivably change the outcome in Massachusetts' 3rd District. The seven-term incumbent was expressing his disagreement with Supreme Court decisions that have voided key elements of federal campaign-finance laws when he uttered the blunt six-word sentence. This seemed to fit Michael Kinsley's definition of a "gaffe" as what happens when a politician accidently speaks the truth. McGovern's notions of unbounded federal authority -- not merely in campaign finance regulation, but in nearly everything -- cause conservatives to doubt the Democrat's fealty to the Constitution.

Whatever McGovern meant to say Wednesday, what he actually said was said in front of video cameras and quickly spread via YouTube. It got McGovern's Republican opponent Marty Lamb mentioned on Mark Levin's nationally syndicated radio program and resulted in Lamb being interviewed Thursday on Howie Carr's popular Boston talk-radio show.

Gaffes, blunders, scandals -- such are the unpredictable events of this election season, now being played out in hundreds of congressional districts nationwide. Whereas pollsters and pundits often speak of elections as if they were describing inexorable impersonal trends, the trends are merely the accumulation of multiple data points like McGovern's debate statement. Similar data points have been unusually profuse lately in Massachusetts. In the 4th District, Rep. Barney Frank is reeling from the revelation that he took a free trip to the Virgin Islands aboard a private jet owned by a hedge fund billionaire. In the 6th District, Rep. John Tierney is on the defensive after his wife Patricia pleaded guilty to four federal felony counts in a case involving her brother, a fugitive gambling kingpin. These events add to a perception -- increasingly prevalent even among Massachusetts voters who have been loyally liberal for decades -- that members of Congress are out of touch, over-privileged, and quite possibly corrupt. Because all of Massachusetts' 10 House seats are held by Democrats, if voters here are in a mood to "throw the bums out," that kind of anti-incumbent mood spells Republican victories. No one, however, is prepared yet to predict that the GOP will win any of these Massachusetts seats, not even in the 10th District, which Scott Brown carried with 60 percent of the vote in a January special U.S. Senate election.

Although many prognosticators have declared a clear trend toward Republicans nationwide -- there now seems to be a consensus among commentators that the GOP will gain the 40 seats necessary to end the speakership of Nancy Pelosi -- most district-by-district breakdowns are still clearly within the margins of error.

Last night, Boston-based conservative blogger Garrett Quinn summed up the fundamental problem in a Twitter message: "Based on all the polls in the last 48 hours we can conclude that nobody has any idea what will happen." Quinn appeared to be referencing the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, where the latest poll showed Republican challenger Charlie Baker up by 5 points, shortly after another poll showed Democrat Gov. Deval Patrick ahead by 7 points.

The problem is not merely that different pollsters report starkly different numbers, nor is the problem limited to Massachusetts. Less than three weeks before Election Day, there is no reliable turnout model nor sufficient confidence in poll results for anyone to say who will win or lose on Nov. 2. And nowhere are the problems of polling and predictions more obvious than in congressional races.

Unlike statewide elections for Senate or governor -- where hotly contested races may be surveyed by multiple polling firms during the course of a single week -- surveys of House districts by public pollsters are few and far between. Most House races are only polled by private firms hired by campaigns or identifiably partisan sponsors and, when these "internal" polls are made public, the results must be taken with a grain of salt. Even if internal polls are conducted by reputable polling firms, there are usually enough undecided voters in the sample to render the numbers of dubious value as predictors of Election Day results. So long as neither candidate is consistently polling above 50 percent, the race is still up for grabs, and this is the case in most of the closely watched congressional districts that analysts consider "competitive."

Pundits endlessly analyze polls and trends, but polls and trends do not win elections. Campaigns win elections and, for most Republican congressional challengers this year, the unfortunate reality is that their campaigns are shockingly underfunded by comparison to the Democratic incumbents they hope to unseat.

Democrats have raised indignant objections to election spending by conservative groups, claiming that right-wing billionaires, big corporations and "secret foreign donors" are trying to "steal" the election. Yet the fact is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with a reported $39 million cash on hand, has a nearly $14 million advantage over its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee. That makes a huge difference for incumbents like Jim McGovern, who need not fear that the NRCC will pay to air TV ads highlighting his debate gaffe. And despite allegations that "secret foreign donors" are funding the GOP, candidates like Marty Lamb are scraping by with small online donations and mostly volunteer campaign operations.

Nevertheless, McGovern's miscue was the kind of lucky break the underdog Republican challenger needed and, while no one can predict whether it will enable Lamb to score a Nov. 2 upset, no one can guarantee it won't. Campaigns win elections, and there are still 18 days of campaigning to go until Election Day.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.