An Early Look at 2012 ‘Elite Eight’ Battleground

by Stuart Rothenberg March 11, 2011 · 8:48 AM EST

At least eight states that are likely to be among the most competitive and fiercely fought on the presidential level next year are also headed for high-profile Senate contests that could determine control of the chamber.

The list includes Florida and Virginia in the South, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin in the Midwest, and New Mexico and Nevada in the West. (The Badger State makes the list because of growing questions about whether Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl will run for re-election.)

Other states could move the list in the months ahead — Pennsylvania and West Virginia are obvious candidates, of course — but right now they aren’t there.

As the national parties and campaign committees start to think about the 2012 map, they have to be struck by the importance of a relative handful of states next year in both the race for the White House and the fight for control of the Senate.

And, they have to wonder whether, given the increasingly partisan nature of American voting, carrying those key presidential states also translates into winning a majority in the Senate next year.

In 2006, 2008 and 2010, voters approached the general election more as a parliamentary choice than ever before. That’s the only way to explain losses by popular incumbents such as Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) and Walt Minnick (D-Idaho).

Certainly, some voters continued to split their tickets during the past three cycles. But three “wave” elections in a row suggest that in 2010 Republicans who had voted for moderate Democrats in the past switched to the GOP candidates, while in both 2006 and 2008 Democratic voters who had cherry-picked GOP moderates in the past opted to vote a straight Democratic ticket.

Want more evidence? Democratic pollster Pete Brodnitz argues that the results of Sen. Jim Webb’s narrow win in Virginia in 2006 and Harold Ford’s narrow loss in Tennessee that year were strongly related to President George W. Bush’s relative approval ratings in both states.

The development of parliamentary voting raises many questions for party strategists, as well for Senate campaign managers in the key state battlegrounds.

Will the trend continue into 2012? And if it does, how do campaigns deal with the development?

Brodnitz assumes that the trend will continue, and another Democratic pollster agreed that the country’s continued polarization could lead to another parliamentary election.

But one Republican pollster I talked with disagreed, suggesting that independent voters are now starting to behave more as they traditionally have, lessening the chances of another huge wave election.

“The issue matrix will be broader in 2012 than in 2010,” the Republican predicts. “The 2008 election was a referendum on hating President Bush. Then 2010 was about jobs and pocketbook issues. A broader issue matrix could give candidates from both parties an opportunity to drive a message, to frame debate. Voters will be able to consider each race individually.”

If voters do start to make distinctions among candidates, relying on more than their party labels, individual candidate qualities and messages will have a greater effect on House and Senate election outcomes. A jump in ticket-splitting would invariably follow.

On the other hand, if 2012 does repeat the dynamics of the past three election cycles, campaign strategists will have to figure out how to deal with that.

In that case, Brodnitz says, the main question is whether a candidate can “create a distinct profile” in a state, allowing him or her to swim against a strong current in the state.

And, Brodnitz adds, if a presidential candidate goes up on TV early in one of these states, the Senate candidates in the state may also be forced to hit the airwaves early and heavily or else fear being defined by the presidential race.

Another parliamentary election would be a particular problem for less well-defined incumbents, such as Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), or for a Senator who represents normally hostile territory, such as Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

Voters in Michigan showed just how angry they were in 2010, and unless things improve in the economy, they may be waiting to do so again when President Barack Obama seeks re-election.

For Nelson, the problem is a large state with many media markets, a slew of new voters and an abundance of senior citizens.

Seniors, of course, swung from heavily Democratic in 2006 and 2008 to strongly Republican last year, and another seniors “wave,” for one party or the other, could guarantee Nelson’s re-election or defeat.

Brown can win re-election if voters focus on his service or compare him to his Democratic opponent, but not if they see the Massachusetts Senate race as nothing more than an extension of the 2012 White House race.

Another Democratic consultant I talked with offered a particularly stark assessment of the effect of another wave election on individual senate candidates: “There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but if we do have another parliamentary election, it may not matter what individual candidates and campaigns do.”

Keep an eye on these “Elite Eight” to see how the cycle develops.