New Hampshire Senate: No Poll Vault for Sununu

June 24, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

“It will close.”

That was the common analysis during the previous cycle’s Senate race in Pennsylvania, when poll after poll showed then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R) trailing his opponent, then-state Treasurer Bob Casey (D). But after millions of dollars of advertising, the race never did close, and Casey won in a romp.

Now, New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu (R) finds himself in a similar predicament.

Through this point last cycle, two-dozen polls showed exactly the same thing; Santorum trailed Casey by an average of 11 points and the incumbent failed to top 43 percent in the ballot test. Indications are that Sununu will suffer the same fate as Santorum.

Sununu has trailed former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in all but one of 11 polls, dating back to March 2007, by an average of 12 points. And he hasn’t topped 42 percent, except in the mid-December American Research Group poll that was clearly an outlier. [Click here for the comparison poll chart.]

The most recent survey, conducted April 28-May 2 by Dartmouth College, showed Shaheen ahead 46 percent to 36 percent.

But Sununu is undaunted in his effort for a second term.

His supporters repeat the mantra that he was also behind in the polls during his 2002 race against Shaheen, making it a core of their comeback argument. In fact, that’s not the whole truth. From July 2001 to early October 2002, Sununu led Shaheen, most often well outside the margin of error. And he wasn’t even the nominee until September 2002. A June 23-July 1 University of New Hampshire survey showed then-Rep. Sununu leading Gov. Shaheen comfortably, 51 percent to 42 percent, heading into the summer.

Two polls in mid-October gave Shaheen a narrow edge, but Sununu led for the bulk of the race. This year he will have to come from much further behind.

“John Sununu knows how to win campaigns in New Hampshire,” Sununu adviser Julie Teer said. “Our campaign has a strategy in place, and we are following it according to plan.”

While the Senator has been hands-on and Team Sununu has been tight-lipped about his strategy, there is no question that it revolves around reminding voters about Shaheen’s gubernatorial record.

“I think her service as governor demonstrated a real lack of leadership, failure to deal with the most important problem facing the state … education funding,” Sununu told Roll Call in a May interview.

But since her 2002 loss to Sununu and since she’s been out of office, Shaheen’s standing has improved. A late April UNH survey had her personal rating at 56 percent favorable to 29 percent unfavorable.

Up to this point, Sununu has focused on fundraising. The Senator raised more than $4.1 million through the first three months of the year and finished March with $4.3 million on hand. Shaheen raised more than $2.5 million and topped $1.8 million in the bank. Even with a financial advantage, there is no guarantee that Sununu’s plan to remind voters and redefine Shaheen will work.

“No matter what we did or how often we did it, it didn’t matter,” said Santorum media consultant John Brabender, whose candidate outspent his opponent $25.3 million to $17.5 million in the 2006 race. “It was like banging our head against the wall.”

Santorum began advertising statewide more than a month before Casey, but in the end, it didn’t matter.

“When you have two established brands, you’re not going to throw up advertising and see things move,” Brabender said. “The Santorum polling eight months out looked the same as it did one day out.”

“The issue that hurt me was the nationalization of the election,” Santorum said in a recent interview, explaining the differences between his race and Sununu’s challenge.

“Shaheen will be as much of an issue in this race as Sununu. He has an opponent with a clear record. I did not,” he added, noting Casey’s uncontroversial statewide offices and family legacy in the state.

Six of Sununu’s colleagues were defeated in the previous cycle trying to localize their elections, and late August polling by USA Today/Gallup showed that moving large numbers of voters late in a campaign can be difficult. By the end of August, Santorum was down by 18 points and lost. Then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) was down by 6 points and lost, while then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) was down 3 points and lost, too.

Then-Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and George Allen (R-Va.) were either tied or slightly ahead in their races by the end of the summer and lost re-election. And Missouri Sen. Jim Talent (R) was up by 6 points that summer and went down to defeat. Voter opinion had either solidified or undecided voters broke dramatically against the incumbent.

Republicans may have to reach back almost a quarter of a century to find precedent for an incumbent coming from so far behind to win. In 1984, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms (R) was running for a third term and found himself down by 20 points to Gov. Jim Hunt (D) with 18 months to go.

“Barring an act of God, Jesse Helms can’t win,” a Washington Post reporter wrote. But Helms had a plan.

According to the book “Tarheel Politics: Myths and Realities” by Paul Luebke, the Senator attacked early, going after Hunt on television in the fall and winter in the year preceding the election. Helms effectively redefined the popular governor and helped himself by polarizing the electorate along racial lines by opposing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

By May 1984, Helms was already back in the lead, but he would go on to win only narrowly, 52 percent to 48 percent. This year, it’s June, and Sununu still trails his opponent.

Helms benefited greatly from the top of the ticket, where Ronald Reagan won the state with 62 percent and Republicans took back the governorship. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected to compete, and potentially win, in New Hampshire, but it won’t be by 24 points. And Democratic Gov. John Lynch (D) will be re-elected easily. He won with more than 73 percent in 2006.

Even though the presidential race will drive turnout, there is no guarantee it will lift Sununu enough.

“The same voters aren’t pulling the trigger for both of them yet,” said UNH Survey Center Director Andrew Smith, whose April poll had McCain winning the state by 6 points and Sununu losing by 12.

Unlike Helms, Sununu has chosen not to advertise early. Part of the strategy is due to cost, since the expensive Boston media market covers the vast majority of the state. The other calculation is that the voters who matter aren’t paying attention, and that New Hampshire’s late-breaking voters make it different than any other state in the union.

Shaheen has already been on television statewide, seeking to define herself. And at least six of Sununu’s GOP colleagues who are up for re-election this year have chosen to air early commercials as well, including Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), James Inhofe (Okla.), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

“Different candidate. Different state. Different campaign plan,” said Sununu media consultant Fred Davis, who is part of an upgraded campaign team. In general, the Sununu team is almost dismissive of the Senator’s vulnerability, über-confident in its plan, and claims the race is “neck and neck” in its unreleased polls.

Sununu’s supporters believe that New Hampshire in 2008 will be a decidedly different, and better, environment, and they believe McCain will be extremely strong at the top of the ticket.

That’s good because the Granite State was the scene of a Democratic tsunami in the previous cycle that re-elected a governor, threw out both Republican Members of Congress and flipped both the state Senate and state House to Democratic control. But even if this is a better year than 2006, it will be nowhere near 2002 — when Republicans were popular — for Sununu.

McCain will need to help Sununu, and Republicans in general, regain their appeal to independent voters, who led to the defeat of Sununu’s colleagues last cycle. According to exit polling, Santorum lost independents by 44 points, DeWine by 30 points, Burns by 24 points, Allen by 12 points and Talent by 8 points. Chafee actually won independents by 10 points and still lost. It almost goes without saying, but independents are critical for Sununu.

It appears that Sununu wants both a nationalized race with a popular McCain and a localized election where voters respond to Shaheen’s tenure as governor.

“Sen. Sununu has a strong track record of proving the political prognosticators wrong, and we have every reason to believe that streak will continue,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Rebecca Fisher said.

In the end, Sununu’s plan may not matter.

“There are some things that are simply beyond the Senator’s control,” Santorum said.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on June 19, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.