Does the “Specter” of a filibuster-proof Senate really help the Democrats?

In an earlier blog comment, Jack Goodman asked me about a Arlen Specter-Tom Ridge matchup in the 2010.  I suggested that Ridge, a former Governor in that state, was the type of moderate Republican who could defeat Specter, which was one reason why I didn’t think Specter’s Senate voting would move very far Left, ideologically, despite his new party label.  I have no idea if Ridge is running, but Quinnipiac just released polling data (see here) confirming my hunch.   In the first survey of Pennsylvania voters since Specter’s defection, it shows Specter and Ridge running neck-and-neck; Specter leads 46-43, with 8% undecided – a lead that is about the same as the poll’s 2.9% margin of error.

In contrast, the same poll shows Specter trouncing Republican congressman Pat Toomey, 52-33, with 10% undecided.

Against either Ridge or Toomey, Specter enjoys strong support among Democrats; the numbers are 84-5 against Toomey, and 78-14 over Ridge.  Among Republicans, however, it is the reverse; here Specter loses 74-14 to Toomey and 82-10 to Ridge.

The biggest difference between having Toomey as an opponent as opposed to Ridge – and why Ridge is such a formidable opponent – comes among independents.  They favor Ridge over Specter 47-37, with 11% undecided.

This is why you see so little change in Specter’s voting record to date despite the party switch; lacking a credible Democratic primary opponent, and with strong support among Democratic voters, he’s not very worried about opposition from the Left.  (The favorable/unfavorable split among Democratic voters toward Specter is 77-8!) It’s the moderate voters he’s worried about, particularly if his opponent is Ridge.  Among independents, Specter’s favorability ratio is 51-35 – but Ridge’s is 62-17 (18% undecided). And independents are evenly split, 44-44, regarding whether Specter deserves to be reelected in 2010.  Hence my prediction that Specter would remain firmly entrenched as a swing vote in the Senate.

If I’m Ridge (and Republicans more generally), the following is the part of the Quinnipiac poll that I would find most encouraging:  only 41% of those surveyed thought that a Democratically-controlled filibuster-proof Senate was a good thing – 49% said it was a bad thing (with 11% undecided). And by a margin of 52-44, Pennsylvanians agree with the following statement: “Some people say that losing a Republican in the Senate is dangerous because President Obama and the Democrats will now be able to steamroll over the Republicans. Do you agree or disagree?”  That, in my view, is the issue on which Republicans can win back this Senate seat: the “Specter” of a Democratic supermajority in the U.S. Senate.  Pennsylvanians – and Americans more generally – are uneasy when power is concentrated in a single party. And that’s why Specter’s switch might not be all that beneficial to Democrats – if his party label changes, but his voting patterns do not, then it provides Pennsylvanian voters concerned about a concentration of power with a pretext to elect a “true” Republican Senator in 2010 to limit Democratic power at the national level. From this perspective, Democrats would have been better off if Specter remained a Republican.  The problem, of course, is that Specter likely would not have won as a Republican.

Note that this is one poll, and the election is more than a year away. Ridge has not, to my knowledge, even expressed any interest in running.  More importantly, it did not ask voters about a Ridge-Toomey Republican matchup – it’s not immediately clear to me that Ridge can make it out of the Republican primary if he’s matched up with Toomey.  Nonetheless, the data provides support for my contention that Specter is more worried about his right flank than his left.  And it provides a glimmer of support for those predicting a Republican comeback in the 2010 midterms.


  1. Matt, I’m wondering if there is any polling which discusses the view of Americans on how they view the parties? Especially how independents view them?

    Right now, the Republicans (for better or worse) sell themselves as the ideologues, who look to “restore” American supremacy in the world. Rhetorically, they tend to emphasize “rule of the leader” (rather than “rule of law”).

    Democrats, conversely, sell themselves as the pragmatists, trying to (re-)establish a secular order. Rhetorically, they tend to emphasize “rule of law” (rather then the power of one person).

    Now that populist “rally ’round the flag” phenomenon has waned, and Americans are looking at issues more soberly, I think Specter served as a long-term investment for the Dems, regardless of whether they win or lose. To my mind, the potential short-term loss for Democrats in Pennsylvania could be offset by the view of the Democrats as the party of serious politicians who embrace serious debate both within and beyond the party. Meanwhile, it forces the Republicans to continue to have a very-public soul-searching about where their “center” is.

  2. Hm, interesting. Ridge’s weakness against Toomey seems to point right back to the sway that the Club for Growth PAC now holds over Pennsylvania’s election. More to come I hope from our esteemed guru on that!

    I’m sure you are close personal friends of the Supremes, Matt — especially your neighbor to the East — so do tell: Didn’t Specter’s switch also flip the switch for Souter? It seems obvious it made it much easier to announce — and so close on the heels of that development — his own resignation. After all, what are filibuster-proof friends for? (I.e., the impact of Specter’s switch seems to be felt beyond any shift in his voting record.)

  3. Martin – Actually, I don’t have polling data on Toomey vs. Ridge, at least not yet. Quinnipiac didn’t ask that question. My surmise is that Ridge would find it difficult to beat Toomey in the primary, but that’s only a guess at this point. I’ll try to get polling data on it. For what it’s worth, Republicans look favorable on Ridge by 78-5, compared to 40-3 favorable/unfavorable numbers among Republicans for Toomey. However, a whopping 57% say they don’t know enough about Toomey to have an opinion. So I think it’s still an open question regarding Ridge’s viability in the Republican primary against Toomey.

    As for the timing of Souter’s resignation: rumor has it that he’s been disillusioned about the Court’s partisan-slant since Bush v. Gore in 2000. As a good friend of mine recently wrote in the New Republic, Souter was a process conservative – a strong believe in stare decisis – and thus not comfortable with court decisions that he believed were driven by partisan concerns. I’ve no doubt he timed his departure so that it took place under a Democratic president and Democratic-controlled Senate. I’m less certain it had anything to do with Specter’s announcement, however – my guess is that Souter’s decision to step down predated Specter’s decision to switch, although perhaps you are correct that Specter’s announcement convinced Souter to go public.

    Vijay – your question deserves a more elaborate response, but I will say that I don’t remember Democrats being described as “pragmatists”! And it is Republicans who historically have been associated with the “rule of law’, haven’t they? Democrats are secular, yes, but that’s not the same as pragmatic. It may be that the brand-name will change, as you suggest, because of Obama’s more pragmatic public personae.

    If I were a staunch Democrat, however, I might like someone else to run in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania to at least hold Specter’s feet to the fire. The risk, of course, is that in the struggle to beat his Democratic opponent, Specter may be so weakened that he loses in the general election to the Republican.

  4. Matt, Specter could be critical in Obama’s health care bill. Other than that, I agree with most Pennsylvanians that one party government is more a curse than a blessing. Check out 2001=2006 for numerous examples.

  5. Jack – I agree that Specter will likely play an influential role in the health care debate, which is further incentive for Obama and the Democrats to move on this issue quickly, before 2010, despite the risk of further clogging the legislative inbox. But note that he likely would have been just as influential as a Republican! And Democrats wouldn’t be so worried about a backlash to a filibuster-proof Senate!

  6. Given the phrasing of the statement: ‘Some people say that losing a Republican in the Senate is dangerous because President Obama and the Democrats will now be able to steamroll over the Republicans. Do you agree or disagree?’ I’m surprised only 52% agreed. ‘Steamrolling’ and ‘dangerous’ seem rather suggestive for a poll question.

    Just my guess, but if Specter only has 46-43 on Ridge today, his outlook is not so good. We are at the peak of Democratic support and with the economy deteriorating, by next year I would imagine a moderate Rep. would be positioned pretty well. Of course I don’t know much about Ridge or Specter, but based on this alone.

    Also justly or unjustly, I think public perceptions of the two parties are at least as likely to be the opposite of what you described Vijay (except for the secular part of course). Also I’m not totally convinced Americans are approaching issues more soberly, I can’t really think of any evidence for that. I guess the slight increase in voter turnout (+1.5%) might be evidence (but is probably due to the historic nature of Obama’s election), but the real increase was the 4% increase in 2004. And of course Obama’s populist campaign and image (Leno in the middle of a recession and soon to be 10%+ unemployment??) would be evidence to the contrary.

  7. This comment is somewhat relevant to the posts above (particularly Vijay’s), but I’m trying to take a broader view of Specter’s switch and some recent party- ID polling.

    A couple of days ago, I followed a link to a brief article by Niel Newhouse from Public Opinion Strategies (I don’t know much about him except that he has been a well-respected republic pollster for some time).

    In his analysis of a recent party identification poll, Newhouse argues that the results “reinforce[]the need to put aside the outdated targeting recipe for victory (95% of R’s, 55% of I’s, 10% of D’s) and replace it with one that calls for more cross-party partisan support in order to achieve victory (95% of R’s, 60% of I’s, 15%-20% of D’s). The current partisan affiliation data is the clear death knell for the “base-style” campaigns favored by some in the early part of this decade.”

    Do you think that the recent party identification numbers really signify that great a shift in the electorate that parties will refocus their efforts to place more emphasis on independents?

    The reason I ask is that the changes in party identification (not to mention Arlen Specter’s switch) may be symptoms of a significant shift underway in party politics – a shift that may force the Republican party towards the center on some, but not all issues. Especially because there are significant generational differences on many issues, it seems to me that certain aspects of the Republican platform may become unsustainable or just simply ineffective in the medium to long term. While there is a future for fiscal conservatism and free market economics once the current crisis fades, social conservatism appears to be on the decline. Younger voters tend to be more liberal when it comes to specific issues such as gay marriage and because a lower percentage of Americans say that religion plays a major role in their lives, which has an impact on individuals’ perspective on issues like abortion. Immigration is a tricky subject because it poses problems for both sides, but given the growth in the importance of the Hispanic vote, the Republican Party can no longer afford to alienate this bloc of voters with nativist or anti-immigrant views. Therefore, if there is any realignment currently underway in American politics, I would argue that it is the decline of social conservatism.

    The problem for the Republican Party – and I think this is something that many party strategists are concerned about – is that there is a very real divide that appears only to be widening. McCain, as you and others have pointed out, was probably the strongest candidate the Republican party could have nominated in this past election cycle because he had a strong appeal to independent voters. His problem was that he also had to appease the base, which perhaps explains why he had such difficulty in establishing a clear and consistent message. Indeed, the numbers from the fall show that turnout of white conservative voters actually declined in many key states (Ohio, if my memory serves me well, is a perfect example – Obama won about the same number of votes as Kerry, but the Republican vote dropped from 2004 to 2008).

    But more worrisome for the Republican party is not the past but the future: there is unlikely to be any unifying candidate or party platform for 2012; the only thing the party will have is opposition to Obama and the Democratic Congress. That may be enough to pick up a few House and Senate seats here and there, but it is not the basis for a competitive Presidential race. I think it may take one more electoral defeat and another four years for the party to move to the center as Newhouse recommends, but I’d be very interest in your thoughts!

    As an aside, Professor Dickinson – are you going to do a follow-up with VPR now that the interrogation/torture situation has matured a bit?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *