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12 Questions in 2012

Polling? Ticket-Splitting? Mormon Effect? 'Waitress Moms'? Ground Game? Ryan Budget? Tea Party? Senate Surprises? Comebacks?

So many races; so many questions. Who will win; who will lose? And above all: Why? Below, we examine 12 of the many questions surrounding Election Day 2012. After a long and at times unpredictable election cycle, there is only a month left until everything is decided. Of course, a month can be an eternity in electoral politics, meaning the answers to some of the questions we’ve posed might not be as simple and automatic as they appear on first glance.

1. Will Suburban Women Be a Deciding Factor?

Whether it’s “waitress moms,” “Walmart moms” or “soccer moms,” there is no doubt that women have been at the forefront of political messaging in 2012. Examining the role that women will play at the ballot box next month has been focused on the presidential level. But these same female voters have been a key target in downballot races as well.

In particular, the Massachusetts, Missouri and Wisconsin Senate races – where the Democratic nominees are women – have featured prominent messaging aimed at women. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wasn’t even expected to win re-election until GOP Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe, which turned off suburban female voters in a big way.

Suburban women are also a key to victory in House races in places such as suburban Chicago and upstate New York, where Democrats are aiming to make significant gains.

2. Will the Tea Party Movement Have Any Lingering Effects on Downballot Races?

Most of the big political stories of the 2010 cycle centered on the emergence of the tea party as a force. But the movement fizzled in 2012. Any decrease in tea-party-driven GOP enthusiasm will be easily compensated for by presidential-year turnout.

The biggest scalp the movement claimed this cycle was that of Sen. Dick Lugar, who was defeated in the GOP primary. If Republicans lose the Indiana Senate race (it’s currently a Tossup), fingers will definitely point in the tea party’s direction.

But it’s Democrats who are getting the most mileage out of using the tea party moniker. The party is aggressively tagging vulnerable incumbents as “tea party extremists” in TV ads. We’ll find out how effective that is on Election Day.

3. Is the Obama Ground Game Overrated or For Real?

In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign set a new gold standard for voter turnout operations, while breaking barriers with its use of technology and social media. The Democrat’s team identified, persuaded and turned out voters at a level such that exit polls revealed his party enjoyed an edge of 39 percent to 32 percent over the Republicans on Election Day – the best Democratic advantage over the GOP in a generation. Obama won states that had eluded Democrats for years, including Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia.

But this time Obama is not running against a severely underfunded Republican. Mitt Romney has assembled a modern get-out-the-vote program with many of the technological bells and whistles touted by the Obama campaign in 2008. Additionally, Republicans are energized, as opposed to four years ago when the party was depressed and dissatisfied with its own leadership.

The Obama campaign has boasted that its ground game this time makes its 2008 program look like a stone-age operation. A lot of people will be watching to see whether that bears out.

4. How Many Democratic Members Swept Out in 2010 Will Win Comebacks?

Because of redistricting, several of these defeated Members are running in very different or largely reconfigured districts. At least one is a shoo-in: former Rep. Dina Titus in Nevada. Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.) is also favored to return to Congress, and former Rep. Dan Maffei’s (N.Y.) prospects are better than even.

Things are a little less clear for former Reps. Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) and Charlie Wilson (Ohio), although both could wind up back in Congress next year. Their ability to win those tough races could have a significant effect on Democrats’ bottom line. But it’s also not clear that voters have an overwhelming feeling of buyer’s remorse.

5. Will the Ryan Budget Plan Sink GOP Candidates?

Congressional Democrats are banking on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) Medicare reform proposals to do the heavy lifting in their uphill bid to retake the House. Particularly since Mitt Romney selected Ryan as his running mate, Democrats have reprised attacks they leveled against Republicans in 2010 – to little success. But with the GOP-controlled House having actually passed the Ryan budget and Romney running at least partly on its principles of overhauling Medicare, Democrats believe this time will be different. From the Nevada Senate race, where Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) has hit Sen. Dean Heller (R) for supporting the plan, to New York’s 27th district, where underdog Rep. Kathy Hochul (D) is hoping to ride discontent with Ryan’s plan to victory just as she did in a 2011 special election, Democrats are pounding this message against Republican candidates. Will it win them anything big?

6. How Many Surprises Will California’s New ‘Top Two’ System Produce?

For the first time ever, the state with the most House seats switched from a traditional primary/general election system to a “jungle primary” – or top two – system. Instead of separate primaries, only the top two finishers in the multicandidate primary advance to the general – even if they’re members of the same party. This has lent a bit of a Southern runoff flavor to some of California’s general election House races and could lead to some surprise winners who never would have advanced to the 113th Congress under the old system.

Though only eight of the 53 House contests feature two opponents of the same party, at least three of them include sitting Members who essentially would have won re-election by winning the primary under the old system. Here’s what to watch for: Will 40-year veteran Rep. Pete Stark (D) outlast Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell (D) in the 15th district? Will six-term Rep. Joe Baca (D) hold off state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D)? Will Rep. Gary Miller (R) slip by state Sen. Bob Dutton (R)?

7. What Does the Generic Ballot Polling Tell Us in a Nonwave Year?

In three successive wave election cycles – 2006, 2008 and 2010 – the House and Senate were in play and political prognosticators closely monitored generic ballot Congressional polling to gauge whether either chamber might flip and, in the end, by how much.

In 2006, when Democrats picked off 31 House seats and six Senate seats to take control of the full Congress for the first time in a dozen years, the generic ballot finished at plus 11.5 percent for Democrats. In 2008, when Democrats rode the Obama wave to flip 21 more House seats and eight more Senate seats to expand their majorities, the generic ballot closed at plus 10.7 percent for Democrats on Election Day.

No wave is expected this year. Democrats are likely to pick up House seats ranging from the high single digits to the very low double digits.

After playing defense in the Senate for much of the cycle, many now predict Democrats could hold their 53-47 majority and have an outside chance of picking up a seat or two. As of last week at press time, the generic ballot average had Republicans and Democrats tied, with the GOP at 44.8 percent and Democrats 44.5 percent.

8. Will the Mormon Effect Matter Downballot?

There are three states where the Mormon vote is expected to be sizable and could have an effect on Senate and House races downballot. In Utah, Rep. Jim Matheson will have to run more than 20 points ahead of President Barack Obama to win re-election. Turnout in Utah is expected to be extremely high with the first-ever Mormon presidential nominee on the ballot.

There is also a big Mormon population in Arizona and Nevada, where there are competitive Senate races featuring candidates who are  members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada and Rep. Jeff Flake in Arizona. If either of those races are extremely close, the Mormon vote could matter.

9. Whose Polling Will Be Right?

At this late point in the cycle, there’s a pretty big deficit between House Democrats and Republicans in their view of how competitive some races are. The difference is internal polling – which is more abundant than ever this cycle thanks to super PACs. Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson’s race in Utah is one example where the two parties diverge based on the poll numbers they are seeing.

Predicting turnout in a presidential year can be somewhat trickier than in midterms, when turnout is lower. Pollsters’ models have no doubt been complicated by the surge in new voters for President Barack Obama in 2008 – a factor he won’t be able to replicate this year. Throw in changed district demographics because of redistricting and you can see why different pollsters may be seeing different numbers. But come Election Day, only one side will have been right.

10. Will We See More Ticket-Splitting Than Usual?

After three successive wave elections, candidates are running in a mostly neutral political environment that doesn’t favor one party. That means some candidates in swing territory who won before with inflated vote totals will have to work to persuade more voters to split their tickets. There’s probably no one who has a tougher job in that department than Sen. Scott Brown (R) in Massachusetts.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to see Democrats netting 25 seats in the House is because it would require a very, very large number of voters to split their tickets in pretty conservative territory. Still, that doesn’t mean that we won’t see it happen. That’s the only way Blue Dog Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Jim Matheson (Utah) will be back.

11. How Many Senate Candidates Will Win Races They Weren’t Supposed To?

Heidi Heitkamp? Linda McMahon? Claire McCaskill? At the beginning of this year, none of these candidates were given much of a shot of being victorious. Now, it’s conceivable that all three could be in the Senate. McCaskill’s reversal of fortune has less to do with her than it does her opponent. But McMahon and Heitkamp have been praised as running two of the best campaigns of this cycle. Both will have to run well ahead of their respective presidential nominee to win in states that are not hospitable to their party. But at the very least, they remind us how much campaigns and candidates do matter.

12. How Many Murphys Will Be in the Next Congress?

Murphy was on the way to becoming the new Smith, but the name has taken a hit recently in the ranks of Congress. Two Murphys were defeated in 2010, and now one of the only two left in the House is running for Senate.

Rep. Christopher Murphy (D) is still the slight favorite in the Connecticut Senate race. But businesswoman Linda McMahon (R) is gaining momentum.

Two Murphys are running in House races worth watching. Businessman Patrick Murphy (D) is looking to knock off Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) and former Congressional aide Mark Murphy (D) is challenging Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.). The incumbent has the edge in each race. If both of those Murphys lose and Congressman Murphy falls short, it would mean Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) would be the lone Murphy in the next Congress.

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