Midterm Mind Games

With three weeks left, Republicans and Democrats are now engaged in psychological warfare.

With three weeks until Election Day, each party is choosing its metaphors.

“Our job is to get as many races on the table as possible,” says a Democratic strategist involved in this fall’s midterm elections, “create as many opportunities as possible, create as much confusion as possible, and then hope that at the end of the day enough Plinkos get all the way down the Price Is Right board to hit the jackpot.” The jackpot, in this case, is keeping control of the Senate, which given how tilted the field is this cycle against Democrats, will make them approximately as happy as this fellow if they pull it off. In the last month, Democrats have won two more Plinko chips, as races in Kansas and South Dakota have come into play. But then again, each chip is still only a long-shot try in a maddening game of twists, switchbacks, and disappointments. 

Republicans have a more familiar metaphor for the Democrats’ strategy: throwing spaghetti at the wall. “You throw a million bucks and you pray that something sticks,” says a Republican strategist describing the recent investment by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in South Dakota. That race was already considered gone, one of the three locked up on the GOP march to the six seats Republicans need to pick up in order to take control of the Senate. “This is a sign of weakness and not strength.”

Though the metaphors mean virtually the same thing, the two views are a window into the positioning, strategy, and psychological warfare of the final frantic home stretch in the battle to control the Senate. Since the start of the cycle, operatives from both sides have been playing a variety of mind games, but now we’re in a period when the efforts are more concentrated. The contours of the battlefield are well-known, the turnout efforts are already well-underway, and so strategists are both more at liberty and also more desperate as the clock winds down to dupe the other side into making bad bets that they think could matter in tight contests.

“It’s a head fake,” says one GOP strategist of the DSCC’s last-minute million-dollar investment in South Dakota. The idea behind such a strategy is that the Democrats are making it look like they are trying, in order to get Republicans to pull resources away from the races where Democrats have a better shot of pulling off an upset. An alternative explanation is that since both parties are still raising money to fund every last ounce of effort, the razzle-dazzle activity offers a nice sales pitch for those last-minute donations. (There’s new activity, so send us new cash!) The Democrats have either found an escape hatch or, seeing states like Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, and Iowa fall away, are cooking up any last-minute gambit they can to do something (anything) to find a way to hold on to control. 

In the late-breaking chess game, both parties are in touch with their contacts in advertising, trying to uncover clues about what their counterparts are really up to. Republicans say Democrats have purchased only a quarter of their promised ad buy in South Dakota. Democrats reported late last week that they’d heard their counterparts had inquired about buying television time in the state. Sure enough, late last week Republicans announced they were going to respond in South Dakota with their own million-dollar advertising investment. (If it was a head fake, they went for it).

Democrats have outraised Republicans by $27 million this cycle, so whether opening up a new battleground in South Dakota is a ruse or a long-shot luxury may be a distinction without a difference. The move has put pressure on the GOP. You wouldn’t expect that this late in a competition where the environment is so favorable for Republicans. “They’ve been pushing us around the last few weeks,” admits a Republican strategist, referring to the late-breaking scuffling over Kansas and South Dakota seats long considered safe for the GOP. In an effort to fire back late Friday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s independent expenditure arm announced a $7.4 million buy in competitive states.  

The two sides are not only engaging in psychological warfare with each other, but checking their own mental stability as new information comes in. When you spend so much time looking for signs of positive momentum, you have to be on the lookout for fool’s gold. As Election Day nears, some noncompetitive races may look like they are tightening, but that’s likely to be just party regulars coming home. The key is knowing what’s a change in the fundamentals of the race and what’s a blip of good news.

At this stage in the race, states are usually falling away from the final set of truly contested battles. Recently the GOP has had to wave goodbye to Michigan, which was always a long shot. Republicans haven’t given up in New Hampshire, though, where GOP challenger Scott Brown has consistently been trailing Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. On Monday morning Democrats were trying to argue that North Carolina was the next state Republicans would abandon (in part because it was left out of the Friday announcement of new spending), but before lunchtime, Politico’s James Hohmann reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee was backing a new $6 million ad campaign in what is likely to be the most expensive competition in the Senate cycle. One fun thing to watch for: What outside group will get caught putting money into a race that’s long gone and have to answer to angry donors when the race is over?

Strategists from both parties rarely admit that states are no longer competitive, but the closer you get to the end, the more participants must weigh their spin against their future reputations in the business. You don’t want to be like the Romney campaign aides who ordered fireworks for election night. So you start to hear a change in the way they talk about races slipping away. They start to praise the candidates’ hard work and underlying talent, as if to fashion a pre-loss consolation prize.

All of this last-minute movement may be frantic busywork that does nothing to change the eventual outcomes. The bigger factors are likely to be the long-term investments the parties made in their turnout operations, the candidates they selected, and national weather patterns like ongoing unhappiness with the president and how that affects voter enthusiasm. In the meantime, no one involved in these races wants to leave any gambit unanswered or any strategy untried. After all, it’s only by throwing spaghetti against the wall that you learn if you’re truly cooked.