These Are the Dog Days for Rating Senate Races

by Stuart Rothenberg July 27, 2011 · 9:21 AM EDT

A veteran Democratic consultant once told me something very wise: 90 percent of what happens in a campaign has little to do with determining who wins and who loses.

The problem is that we don’t know exactly what the important 10 percent is.

I think of this comment often, but particularly during the dog days of the off-year summer, when, apart from candidate recruitment, few things happen that determine who wins and loses Senate races.

I can’t speak for others, but I don’t “move” many races in my ratings during the summer, fall and early winter of the off-year, largely because the general shape of most Senate contests has formed but the details that affect ratings won’t develop until much farther down the road.

Candidates are focused on fundraising, as they will be for many months.
Television advertising is nonexistent in most states, as is regular news coverage of contests. Voters aren’t hearing much about the races, and they certainly aren’t thinking about the candidates or their choices.

Yes, I may “move” a race when an unanticipated candidate enters a contest or a surprise retirement is announced. Significant developments can still have an effect on a race’s rating.

But for the most part, those of us who handicap races already have an idea who is running and which contests will be competitive. A couple of races surely not on the radar will pop up before we reach November 2012, but we won’t know which ones for months.

This cycle, the national environment remains a question mark. While conservatives are convinced that the country will turn against President Barack Obama, handing the GOP another victory, Democrats seem equally confident that Republicans will be defined by the tea party and that Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan will help Democrats win.

As a handicapper of House and Senate races, I’d rather wait and let the cycle develop before prejudging it. I expect that it will be less Democratic than 2006 and 2008 were and less Republican than 2010 was, but otherwise I treat it as essentially neutral at this point in the cycle.

As we end 2011 and begin 2012, the national economic and political landscape of 2012 will come more into focus, and will likely have an effect on individual races.

But for now, there are few reasons to “move” most races. Let’s take the Montana Senate race as an example.

Both my newsletter and the Cook Political Report rate the Montana Senate race as a tossup. Roll Call Politics also rates the race as a tossup.

I can’t imagine anything short of a major scandal or a candidate exit from the race that would cause me to change my rating on the contest in the next six months — and quite possibly not until the final days before the election.

Sen. Jon Tester (D) raised $1.3 million last quarter to GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg’s $915,000.
Tester ended June more than $800,000 ahead of Rehberg in cash on hand ($2.3 million to $1.5 million). But those figures don’t matter much.

Everyone knows that Tester and Rehberg will each raise enough money to be competitive and that the two Senate campaign committees — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — and outside nonparty groups will play big time in this relatively inexpensive media market.
So looking at fundraising here, one of the few quantitative measures of campaign performance and potential that we have, is meaningless.

Polling isn’t likely to be very helpful in Montana either.

A June survey by the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling found the race statistically tied — with Rehberg ahead of Tester by 2 points. A March survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research had a similar result: Tester led Rehberg by 1 point. Democratic and Republican insiders agree the race is close, will remain tight throughout the campaign and probably will finish tight, with one of the candidates winning by a point or two.

But what happens if a poll appears showing either Tester or Rehberg has blown open the race, pulling ahead by 8, 10 or 12 points? Won’t I rush to “move” the race then?
Probably not, unless there has been a fundamental shift in the contest that is otherwise apparent or unless the national landscape has moved so decisively that a dramatic move in the head-to-head ballot test is understandable.

In other words, my first reaction would be skepticism about the poll.

In politics, the fundamentals matter a great deal.

Tester won very narrowly (by less than a point) in 2006, a great Democratic year, when being a challenger against a veteran incumbent was an asset. This time, the political environment will be different, though we don’t exactly know how.

Now Tester has a record, and he faces another well-known Republican statewide elected official who has won in both good and bad years for the GOP.

Tester clearly has a difficult race on his hands, but we won’t know whether he will survive until voters start focusing on the contest during fall 2012.

There will be plenty of yelling and screaming in Montana between now and next summer. Some of it may actually involve important developments and resonate with the voters. But much of it will be little more than spin, making little impression on the voters and telling us almost nothing about who will win.

Unless and until the fundamentals change, Montana is likely to sit right where it is now, all the way through next summer and possibly right to election night.