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First thoughts: Who blinks first on taxes?

*** Who blinks first on taxes? As the lame-duck congressional session approaches -- as does the expiration date for the Bush tax cuts -- we have two questions. One, does Congress extend the tax cuts for those making $250,000-plus for one to three years, or permanently? And two, are the tax cuts for the wealthy de-coupled from the ones from the middle class? Per Dow Jones, GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch said the second question is a non-starter. “Hatch rejected another compromise idea that has been floated of extending the lower tax rates for so-called middle class Americans permanently, while only temporarily continuing the discounted rates for wealthier Americans.” (The reason why: Republicans and some Democrats know that tax cuts for the wealthy would never pass by themselves.) So this becomes a game of who blinks first -- Democrats and the White House who want to separate the tax cuts, or the Republicans who don’t. Can Dems find 60 votes in the Senate for their preferred course?

*** Will Pelosi provide some steel in the Dems’ backbone? We’ve heard from some Democrats that a benefit to Nancy Pelosi staying as leader is that she’d help provide some steel in the Dem backbone in this tax fight. After all, in the lame duck, Democrats will still enjoy their majority in the House and will have a larger majority in the Senate than they’ll have in January. Here's one scenario painted for us as VERY likely: The House passes on mostly party-line vote a permanent extension of middle-class tax rates and a temp extension (three years?) of upper-income breaks. Then Senate Dems try and find 60 votes. Remember, they'll have 58 Dems in the lame duck when the vote comes up (Mark Kirk gets sworn in after Thanksgiving). And there are anywhere between three and five Dem defectors on the "de-coupling" issue. Are there five GOPers willing to vote with Senate Dems on this? Will Dems go to the brink to push this all the way until the end of the year? Or does an exhausted political party and White House cut the extend-them-all-for-three-years deal?

*** More on Pelosi: Despite the disadvantages we've laid out regarding Pelosi staying as Dem leader (e.g., her poll numbers and the fact that, according to CMAG, more than $65 million was spent against her during the campaign in TV ads), there’s an additional benefit to her remaining, and it's why she has the votes: She can raise lots of money. As one Dem aide reminds us, "The DCCC spent $29 million on 33 Blue Dogs and $27 million on 35 New Democrats. Speaker Pelosi is the single largest fundraiser for Congressional Democrats ($231 million since 2002, $64.8 million this cycle alone)." Also, another argument pro-Pelosi forces are making is that she can unify the caucus better than anyone else right now. There was a fear (threat?) among some progressives in the House that a Steny Hoyer campaign for House Dem leader would split the caucus badly and create an ideological divide that could be more counter-productive than the blind quote hand-wringing taking place now re: Pelosi.

*** The pollsters strike back: Nineteen of the political world’s most prominent pollsters issued an open letter yesterday, expressing the concern that many polls released for public (and media) consumption contain inadequate information about how they were conducted. “The American Association of Public Opinion Research outlines clear and extensive standards for the report of publicly released research studies," they wrote. "AAPOR urges full and complete disclosure at the time results are released of elements including sampling and sample design and the exact wording of questions and responses whose results are reported. We would urge the media to examine whether publicly released polls meet AAPOR standards in choosing whether or not to cover them.”

*** Robo-polls flooding the zone: These pollsters zeroed in on -- correctly -- the BIGGER problem with public polling these days: the narrative-setting polls released (mostly by robo-pollsters) very early on in campaigns. Nobody can ever "check" the accuracy of these polls; pollsters only get graded toward the end of the campaign when, frankly, many of them can weight their way to semi-accuracy. The bottom line: The flooding the zone aspect of these dial-a-pollsters has ruined the study of public opinion and made pollsters who spend the money to do it right look obsolete. At NBC/MSNBC, we advise all our platforms against using many of these unreliable pollsters. What the industry needs is an agreed-upon grading system that ALL major media would follow.

*** Making sense of the midterms: Obama's approval rating: Over the next week, we'll be digging deeper into the exit polls to make sense of the midterms and what they could tell us about 2012. Today's topic: Obama's standing in key states. In the states we examined, Obama's highest approval rating was in Vermont (60%), and his lowest was in West Virginia (30%). Among presidential battleground states, Colorado (48%) was the highest and Indiana (37%) was the lowest. Here's the full list, from highest to lowest job-approval rating: VT 60%, CA 54%, IL 53%, OR 52%, WA 51%, CO 48%, PA 47%, WI 46%, NV 45%, FL 45%, IA 43%, OH 43%, SC 43%, AZ 40%, LA 40%, TX 38%, AR 37%, IN 37%, and WV 30%.

*** Making sense of the midterms: The Obama-McCain split: One more point about Obama in the exit polls: The percentage who said they voted for him in '08 was below 50% in every battleground state, even the ones he won (CO, FL, IN, IA, NV, OH, PA, and WI). Indeed, the percentage who said they voted for him in these states was off, on average, between five and six points from his actual vote total two years ago, while McCain's was off between one and two points. (Example: The 2010 exits showed Obama and McCain tied in Florida at 46%, versus Obama's actual 51%-48% win in the state in '08.) This suggests that Obama's voters didn't turn out to their 2008 levels, while McCain’s pretty much did.

*** Alaska update: Per the Anchorage Daily News, the counting of more than 30,500 ABSENTEE ballots begins today in the still-undecided Alaska Senate race. “Alaskans cast 13,439 more write-in ballots on last week’s Election Day than they voted for Republican nominee [Joe] Miller. Miller hopes that today’s absentee count will help him narrow that gap.” As NBC’s Kristen Welker and Adam Verdugo noted earlier, the counting of the WRITE-IN ballots starts tomorrow.

*** Minnesota update: The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Hennepin County Canvassing Board “certified its election results on Monday, shifting a total of six votes to Emmer. A tally in a Plymouth precinct had initially come up short. Dayton now leads Emmer by 8,751 votes, down slightly from an earlier lead of 8,854 votes. He named a transition team on Monday and will meet with Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday. Emmer met briefly with Pawlenty on Monday morning, but did not comment on it. He has declined all interviews since election night.” More: “To make up his current gap, Emmer must find thousands of yet-uncounted votes ready to be folded into the 2.1 million already tallied. But the Hennepin County Board meeting on Monday unearthed no major caches.”

*** The uncalled House races: There are now eight (and soon seven, it seems) races that remain uncalled. Republicans still lead in five, giving them the potential to move to +65 from +60 currently. Some changes from yesterday: The AP called WA-2 for incumbent Rick Larsen (D), and the Washington Post reports that Keith Fimian (R) will concede to freshman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) in VA-11 today. The uncalled races: CA-11, CA-20, IL-8, KY-6 NY-1, NY-25, TX-27, VA-11. http://wapo.st/crrniE

*** Worst year for House incumbents since 1948: If Republicans win in the five still-uncalled House races in which they lead, the incumbent reelection rate would appear to be high -- 85%. But it would be the LOWEST in the House since 1948. What's more, nearly one-fourth of the House will be freshmen; 22% (or more, depending on those uncalled races) of the next Congress will be comprised of new members -- the most since 1992. If Lisa Murkowski wins in Alaska, 84% of incumbents who sought reelection would return to the Senate. (It was lower in 2006, 2000, 1992, 1980, and several other times before that back to WWII.) Traditionally, the incumbent reelection rate is much higher in the House (92%) than the Senate (79%).

*** Meet the freshmen… Take me to your Tea Party leader: Indeed, there will likely be 88 new Republicans (63 flips plus five potential pickups and 20 open-seat holds). There will be just nine Democratic freshmen (three pick-ups, six open-seat holds). It is quite the GOP crop, including at least 41 Tea Party-backed Republicans, who will, per NBC’s Luke Russert, be able to vote on a leader. The early favorite: Kristi Noem, who upended Democratic incumbent Kristi Noem Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin. It may be a shrewd move by Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner to create this position. Tea Party Patriots told NPR before the election that it was going to hold a meeting with just the newly elected members to implore upon them that if they vote how the Tea Party wants, then they can count on their support in 2012, but if not, they won’t get it.

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