With the Internet, we have all become fixated on that day's polling, following the most minute changes in the swing districts on Realclearpolitics.com. But we are overstating the importance of polling in determining the outcome of the coming elections. (Odd thought coming from me!)
The fact is that while Republicans lead in 53 House seats now held by Democrats and are within five points in 20 more, the margins are very thin. In only 14 Democratic seats is the Republican leading by 10 points or more. In all the other districts, it is turnout that will determine the victor.
Going into the election, it would seem that the GOP has a big advantage in turning out voters. Not only is its secret weapon -- the tea parties -- outworking and out-hustling the Democrats, but polls show that Republicans are twice as enthusiastic about voting as are Democrats.
All indications from the field suggest a big GOP turnout, while Democrats tend to stay at home.
In Ohio's First Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Steve Driehaus is trying to fend off a challenge from Republican Steve Chabot, the ratio of early ballots requested by Democrats and by Republicans is, so far, about even. In 2008, it was a three-to-one Democratic edge at this time of year.
So, in analyzing polls to determine whether Republican challengers will defeat Democratic incumbents, three variables are coming into play but are not yet showing up in the polls, all of which work to the Republicans' advantage:
-- Republicans are a lot more motivated to vote than Democrats are.
-- While normally late deciders tend to be Democrats, the levels of unemployment and discontent among undecided voters would indicate that they are likely to break Republican.
So what should the Republicans do with this information? Obviously, they need to work harder to bring out the vote. But they also need to adjust their sights higher and aim for more seats. To confine themselves to the races in which they hold slight leads or are within five points would be to leave on the table dozens of Democratic incumbents who could be defeated in this landslide year.
The danger here is not overconfidence but underconfidence, and that Democratic incumbents who could be defeated will skate to victories. Despite a massive victory in the offing for Republicans, there could be great gnashing of teeth when they see how narrowly some of the icons of the Democratic Party are re-elected.
While groups like Karl Rove's American Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, 60+ and the National Republican Congressional Committee are pouring their resources into the same 60 districts, there are 40 more out there where they could pick up seats. These groups may just be adding to their margins in the 60 and ignoring the potential for victory in the other 40.
Going after the more distant Democratic targets will also force the Democratic Party to pull its money out of the more marginal races as newly endangered -- and very influential -- Democrats start demanding help in fending off new GOP challenges.
Already evidence indicates that some of the Democratic lions are in jeopardy. South Carolina's John Spratt, chairman of the House Budget Committee and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell are both trailing their Republican challengers. Even House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Banking Committee Chairman Barney Frank might be within reach.
The need to focus on turnout in the marginal districts and to put more funding into the districts previously seen as safe for Democrats are two sides of the same coin. The dimensions of this year's Republican sweep are only beginning to become apparent.