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Democratic Sweep Defied 'Conventional Wisdom'


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. It's not just candidates who win and lose on Election Day; these actually are contests of ideas, too. NPR's Mike Pesca looks at how the results of the midterm election have challenged some conventional wisdom about politics.

MIKE PESCA: After each election comes the deluge of analysis. And once the pundits and professors got to dissecting the reasons for the democratic loss in 2004, a few notions began to gain currency. It wasn't, this line of thinking went, a victory of Republican ideas or even of the Republican candidate.

The Republicans seemed to have stacked the deck by perfecting a range of tactics. William Galston, a professor and former official in the Clinton White House, puts it this way.

Professor WILLIAM GALSTON (Professor of Public Affairs, University of Maryland): Look there is not question about the fact that Republicans have had some structural advantages for quite some time.

PESCA: Galston lists a few of these structural advantages. One, Republicans raise more money. Two, gerrymandering helps Republicans. Three, Republicans are better at targeting their voters. Add to that a fourth popular explanation which gained traction over the last couple of years: Republicans are better at framing their ideas in pithy soundbites.

So let's take them in order, the easiest one is money. It's true Republicans raise more nationally and in high profile races. In Ohio, Montana, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Missouri, the Republican Candidate raised more than his Democratic rival and he lost.

Ruy Teixeira is the Author of The Emerging Democratic Majority. He explains.

Mr. RUY TEIXEIRA (Author, The Emerging Democratic Majority): There's just sort of a threshold you have to cross in terms of financial viability. But you don't necessarily have to have as much money or more money than the incumbent; you just have to have enough money to run a real campaign.

PESCA: Next up, the master tacticians who have captured voters inside bizarrely drawn congressional districts. Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz is skeptical.

Professor ALAN ABRAMOWITZ (Professor of Political Science, Emory University): There is a widespread assumption that all bad things are a result of gerrymandering - polarization, lack of competition. But it's a gross over-simplification.

PESCA: Abramowitz says there is gerrymandering. He says gerrymandering hurts democracy a little. But his main explanation for all these seemingly uncompetitive congressional seats is natural migration and political patterns, not wise guys in state houses with grease pencils.

Conservative guru and direct-mail pioneer Richard Vigary(ph) says gerrymandering is an unfair advantage that Republicans have, but a beatable advantage.

Mr. RICHARD VIGARY (Conservative Strategist): It is, in my opinion, equivalent to having a life jacket on if you fall into water over your head. But there is not much that life jacket will do if you're facing a tsunami, and it will help at the margins.

PESCA: Vigary has similar thoughts on the Republican get-out-the-vote advantage. This includes their vaunted voter vault and their use of micro targeting, meaning in-depth research.

Ruy Teixeira eyebrows are raised.

Mr. TEIXEIRA: The sense seems kind of like magic. You know, somehow by taking consumer databases and voter files and mixing it up in a big vat and throwing in the wing of bat and eye of lizard, the Republicans are able to almost steal election victories out from the noses of the Democrats.

But I think - to be honest, I think a lot of it is just B.S.

PESCA: When Emory's Alan Abramowitz looks at why Republicans were better at getting out their vote in battleground states like Ohio in 2004, he says there was more vote to get out.

Prof. ABRAMOWITZ: Democrats did a better job actually of increasing their votes than the Republicans did. Now, you know, they still lost because you can only turn out people who support you.

PESCA: On to framing, an idea that in general seems pure common sense - make a good argument. But since the 2004 election, the work of linguist George Lakoff has taken off among some Democrats to the point where Lakoff offers briefings to powerful politicians, telling them that the key to victory lies in the right phrases and soundbites. William Galston is not a believer.

Mr. GALSTON: The emphasis on framing and language has functioned as one more excuse for the Democratic Party not to think harder about what it's agenda ought to be. It amounts to the proposition: There is nothing wrong with what we advocate, we just need to find more effective ways of talking about it.

PESCA: Reasonable people can differ. This time around Democrats may have been helped by succinct messages like had enough? That one was offered up by master framer Newt Gingrich, by the way.

In any case, a Democratic victory doesn't just prove the effectiveness of key Republicans tactics, it just shows that the tactics aren't insurmountable. And maybe it will convince certain Democrats that perhaps, sort of, at least this time the systems works. Easier for them to say; they won.

Mike Pesca NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.