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May 23, 2006

Democrats shouldn't celebrate too soon

Posted by David Postman at 4:56 PM

Pollster Celinda Lake, in town for an appearance tonight at Town Hall, just offered a candid — or so it seemed to me — assessment of where Democrats stand in this year's mid-term election. Lake should know. She is one of the country's most prominent Democratic pollsters and watched up close in 1994 when her side took an historic beating.

In an interview in Sea-Tac, Lake said Democrats should not get cocky. Already she said some Democratic interest groups "are celebrating victory before they should count on it." Democrats should be worried about turnout, though, because her polling shows that key blocks of voters — unmarried women and men, and women 18 to 30 — aren't good about turning out in mid-term elections, and this year feel particularly discouraged by how things went after they made it to the polls in 2004.

And while those voters are anti-Bush, Lake said Democrats have not yet done enough to tie all Republican candidates directly to the White House.

"We need to nationalize the elections. We need a tidal wave. They're going to localize it and try to disqualify our individual candidates. It's very clear what the struggle is."

Washington voters will get a chance to watch Lake's strategy up close because she is polling for Democratic Darcy Burner, who is challenging Republican Rep. Dave Reichert in the 8th District. "Right now voters want independents who represent their voice," Lake said. But that's one step removed from what's needed for anything approaching a '94-like surge. If voters are just interested in an independent, that could be someone like Reichert, Lake said. Democrats have to make themselves the default choice.

Voters need to be convinced, Lake said, that close to ties to Bush-Cheney are "disqualifiers." Democrats are handicapped because there is no single vote to tie incumbents to Bush. In '94 it was a tax vote that many think doomed Congressional Democrats, particularly freshmen.

"There's no single vote here. Even though the single vote would be the war, frankly a lot of Democrats voted for the war, and lots of voters remember at the time being in favor of the war."

In '94, Lake said, she and other pollster working with congressional incumbents were seeing trouble in the field but pollsters working directly for President Clinton continued to maintain everything was fine.

"We used to have huge fights between the Clinton polling team and the rest of us who were doing other races. And I don't know to this day whether they believed their numbers or not. I think not. ... Pollsters usually don't disagree when you're behind closed doors. But I think they were being loyal to their boss. There were screaming matches. They were saying 'It's OK, stay the course' and people were saying 'I don't know what you're looking at. It's awful out there. Our voters are demoralized and it's off in every way.' That was a year long fight."

I asked whether she thinks Republicans are having the same fights.

"I don't think they delude themselves as much. I think they've had a period of disagreement and they definitely have had a disagreement on whether their candidates should distinguish themselves from the President. But now they have a strategy."

The event tonight at Town Hall is about Lake's new book, co-written with Kellyanne Conway, a leading conservative pollster. It's called, "What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live."

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