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First Thoughts: Lessons learned?

Lessons learned for both the Obama White House and congressional Republicans?... Sex, lies, and email: Expect a lot of grandstanding over the Petraeus affair… Why were the GOP polls so wrong?... Is the independent vote overrated?... Breaking down the Catholic vote… And redistricting made House races less competitive.

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President Barack Obama speaks after a wreath-laying ceremony on Veteran's Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 2012 in Arlington, Va.

*** Lessons learned? Wasn’t the biggest post-election story in Washington supposed to be the fiscal cliff? Ah, nothing like a sex scandal to distract from what SHOULD be the biggest story in Washington, so we lead with that… Perhaps the biggest mistake the Obama White House made during the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011 was think that all it had to do was strike a deal with House Speaker John Boehner. The New York Times reports that the White House says it has learned its lesson -- President Obama “will not simply hunker down” in closed-door meetings with Republican leaders. He “will travel beyond the Beltway at times to rally public support for a deficit-cutting accord that mixes tax increases on the wealthy with spending cuts. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama will meet with corporate executives at the White House as he uses the nation’s fiscal problems to start rebuilding relations with business leaders… He hopes to enlist them to persuade Republicans in Congress to accept higher taxes on the assurance that he can deliver Democrats’ votes for future reductions in fast-growing entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid.” If one lesson from July 2011’s failure is the lack of an OUTSIDE game (i.e. building support among business for instance), what about any lessons they learned in dealing with the congressional GOP leadership? We wonder if Team Obama learned that it might have better success in engaging rank-and-file Republicans (think Sens. Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker or Tom Coburn) than just GOP leaders. Keep an eye on this. Will the White House, through other Democratic senators, begin to build a Plan B should the Boehner talks stall?

*** Signals that Republicans might work together with Democrats? And perhaps the biggest mistake that Republicans made was to believe that opposing Obama at almost every turn would break his presidency. Well, it didn’t turn out that way, and some are seeing the writing on the wall. For instance, we see folks like conservative writer Bill Kristol argue that Republicans need to consider raising some taxes on the wealthy. “You know what? It won’t kill the country if Republicans raise taxes a little bit on millionaires. It really won’t, I don’t think,” he said on FOX yesterday. “I don’t really understand why Republicans don’t take Obama’s offer to freeze taxes for everyone below $250,000. Make it $500,000, make it a million.” And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) said on “Meet the Press” yesterday that he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) are revisiting their comprehensive immigration reform. As for House Speaker John Boehner, his job right now is to prove to the White House that he can deliver on a deal. It’s why his office and other House Republicans are talking to any media that will listen to send the message that Boehner has more leeway to cut a deal. Of course, sending that message now is an acknowledgement that perhaps Boehner did NOT have the same leeway in July 2011.

*** Sex, lies, and email: Expect a lot of grandstanding over the next several days after the news that CIA Director David Petraeus resigned his job due to an extramarital affair. Sex? Check. FBI investigation? Check. Upcoming congressional hearings? Check. But ask yourself this: If no national security was being compromised, is this truly a scandal? And maybe that’s what has some in Washington scratching their heads. And one thing that could lessen the usual partisan grandstanding on a matter like this is that Petraeus was an Obama administration official whom conservatives and Republicans absolutely adored. By the way, if Obama and Boehner were clever, they’d use all the attention the Petraeus affair is receiving to do some serious fiscal-cliff negotiating. Petraeus is the perfect shiny-metal object distraction.

*** Why were the GOP polls wrong? Turning back to last week’s presidential election, Politico has a story asking this question: How could the Republican polls have been SO wrong? “Top party strategists and officials always knew there was a chance that President Barack Obama would get reelected, or that Republicans wouldn’t gain control of the Senate. But down to the final days of the national campaign, few anticipated the severe setbacks that Republicans experienced on Nov. 6. The reason: Across the party’s campaigns, committees and super PACs, internal polling gave an overly optimistic read on the electorate. The Romney campaign entered the last week of the election convinced that Colorado, Florida and Virginia were all but won, that the race in Ohio was neck and neck and that the Republican nominee had a legitimate shot in Pennsylvania.” So what went wrong? Politico surmises that GOP likely-voter models just didn’t think the electorate would have as many minorities and young people. In other words, they didn’t think 2008 would happen again. Well, it did. What’s really odd is that we thought it was the regular practice of partisan pollsters to provide results with the OTHER side’s best case turnout projection reflected. Did they not do that? Did they simply believe enthusiasm among partisans told a better story? It’s true that partisan enthusiasm can make a big difference in a midterm election; in presidential elections, it’s less certain. One need only look at 2000 (and the missed Democratic surge, despite GOP enthusiasm for Bush) or 2004 (and the missed GOP surge, despite Dem partisan enthusiasm for Kerry). 

*** Is the independent vote overrated? In our latest installment looking at the exit polls from last week's presidential election, here's something you might not have known: Romney actually won the independent vote, 50%-45%. So now twice in the last three elections -- in 2004 and 2012 -- the winner has lost the indie vote. What does this mean? Well, party ID appears to matter much more: In 2004, it was even; in 2008, it was D+7; and last week, it was D+6. Also, many polls have different ways of deciding who is an “independent”; some pollsters include “lean Dems and lean GOPers” in their independent number which lately has given the indie number a GOP skew. If you move the leaners into their own parties, then you get a more pure indie subgroup (and you also realize how really small of a subgroup it is).

*** Breaking down the Catholic vote: Indeed, a better predictor of presidential elections seems to be Catholic voters. Bush won them in 2004 (52%-47%); Obama won them in 2008 (54%-45%); and Obama won them in 2012 (50%-48%). Yet Obama performed worse among white Catholics in 2012 (losing them 59%-40%) than he did in ’08 (52%-47%). What went on here? Well, Obama fared much better with Latino Catholics, and that boosted his numbers among overall Catholics. Over time, could the Catholic vote become less of a telling predictor if Latinos continue to vote in droves for Democrats? Or does it become the first place we find out whether Republicans have made any inroads with Latinos is via the prism of the Catholic vote?

*** Redistricting made races less competitive: Some have wondered why President Obama would appear to have coattails for Senate races this time around, but not much of them in the House. Democrats expect that when all the votes are in they will pick up a net of seven seats. But that's hardly coming close to taking back they House (they needed 25) or making up for the 63 seats they lost in 2010. The most obvious explanation for this is redistricting. In fact, just 88 races had the winner with 55% or less, down from 113 in 2010 (a 22% decrease). But there were even fewer truly competitive races. Just 38 (!!!) races had a winner that got 52% or less, down from 61 in 2010 (37% reduction). The biggest decrease took place in Pennsylvania, where Republicans took over the state legislature and governorship in 2010. The Keystone State had seven 55-and-under races in 2010 but just three in 2012. And just one of those was 52-and-under -- and it was a Republican takeover.

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