Whatever happens on Tuesday, the GOP won’t be able to meet the media’s expectations

There are an extraordinarily large number of statewide races which could go either way on Tuesday. More than a baker’s dozen races for governor are polling within the margin of error, and there are between eight and 12 Senate races that remain competitive. A variety of factors are ensuring that Republicans are better positioned than Democrats this cycle reap the benefits of a favorable electorate, but there is no guarantee that the GOP will be able to defend all of their incumbents or even pick up control of the Senate. Even if they did just that, however, it is unclear that the press would deign to give them credit for their victories.

There are a few indications which suggest that Republicans may not be poised to enjoy the groundswell of support that most expect from the electorate amid in an unpopular Democratic president’s sixth year midterm. The national generic congressional ballot question is particularly screwy; depending on the survey, Republicans are either favored by 8 points among likely voters or Democrats are favored by a single point. The left, however, has abandoned the skepticism of national polls which served them well in 2012 and are instead placing enough faith in them to declare definitively that there will be no GOP wave on Tuesday.

This kind of selective poll reading is expected from partisans, but this is an extremely uncharitable view of Republicans’ electoral prospects on the part of the press. If Republicans were to win all of the Senate races in which they are currently leading in the polling averages, the GOP would pick up 7 seats (8 if you take Greg Orman at his word that he will caucus with the party which wins a majority of Senate seats).

Similarly, the University of Virginia’s reading of the House landscape suggests the GOP is positioned to lose three seats and pick up 12 seats for a net gain of 9. Included in those GOP pickups are the swingy races in New York’s 1st Congressional District, currently occupied by Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY), and New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District held by Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH). Those districts are sensitive to national conditions – Bishop narrowly survived the 2010 wave while Shea-Porter did not, though she managed to retake her seat the following year.

According to The Washington Post, the GOP is poised to win 53 seats in the Senate and 243 seats in the House for the largest majorities that party has enjoyed since 1929. But if one is determined to avoid declaring 2014 a GOP wave year, there are plenty of ways to go about reinforcing that belief. Some are more honest than others.

Take, for example, New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza’s insistence that it cannot truly be considered a wave election unless states which are not now and never were competitive shock the political world and fall to Republicans.

“Basically what’s happening is a bunch of red state Democrats who just barely got elected in 2008 because they had Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, six years later those red states are reverting back to Republican leadership,” Lizza insisted. Surely he will be as charitable to Republicans like Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL), Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Ron Johnson (R-WI) when they face an unfavorable electorate in 2016.

“I don’t think that means it’s a wave, it just means that Republicans had a much better playing field and Republicans won,” he continued. “If they win, say, in Virginia, if they win in New Hampshire, if they win in a couple of Obama states, then I think you start to say, ‘Okay, this is a wave.’”

“Obama states,” like, say, Colorado and Iowa? If Republicans managed to put a race on the map that no one was watching, like the race in Old Dominion, 2014 is not merely a GOP wave but a tsunami of nearly unfathomable proportion. If the GOP just manages to sweep up to 8 seats in the upper chamber, it would still be a feat which would surpass even the Democrats’ performance in 2006 which no one disputes was a wave election.

Or take NBC’s Chuck Todd who, like Lizza, also went out of his way to shift the goalposts away from Republicans in order to create unreasonable expectations for their performance that they will probably be unable to meet.

“It doesn’t look like a wave election right now,” Todd insisted in a segment on MSNBC. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t end up that way. If New Hampshire and North Carolina are both going to Republicans and Scott Walker, and Rick Scott, all the close governor’s races tip to the Republicans, then you have to say, that’s a wave.”

Again, the only metric to measure a Republican wave election is if they exceed the expectations set by the polls, not the precise number of seats the party gains.

Todd betrayed his own logic a bit in an earlier segment on MSNBC in which he gamed out the path through which Democrats retain control of the Senate. Not surprisingly, it centered on Democratic incumbents retaining their seats in New Hampshire and North Carolina where they are presently favored, but it also rested dubiously on the prospect that Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) survives.

Begich won his seat by only one point in 2008, the year Barack Obama expanded the map and the Democratic electorate so dramatically. Despite Alaska’s notoriously poor poll quality, Begich has led in precisely one poll since August. To place all of the left’s faith in Mark Begich is to grasp so unconvincingly at straws that it should not be taken especially seriously.

Finally, even in the unlikely event that Republicans exceed the media’s unrealistic expectations, the race is on to ensure that the GOP doesn’t read anything into their victory.

Over at The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, Paul Waldman insisted that, even if the GOP were to win as many as 8 seats and secure the largest majority in the U.S. House of Representatives since the Truman administration, they will have no mandate to pursue their favored policies:

New polling data suggests that even if Republicans do take the Senate, we’re hardly looking at a “GOP wave.” The final pre-election poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal was released today, and it shows the two parties nearly deadlocked (46-45 in Republicans’ favor) in the generic ballot test among likely voters. Democratic voters’ interest in the campaign has risen to match Republicans’, and approval of the GOP as a party remains abysmal. There’s also evidence to suggest that turnout will be low.

Of course, that poll could be inaccurate on any given question. But a perfectly plausible outcome would be that Republicans end up with a Senate majority of 51, 52, or 53 seats, but the election as a whole looks not like a wave but like a mixed victory amid conditions that already favored them.

And yet, if Republicans are victorious, they’ll repeat over and over that quote from Barack Obama when he said his administration’s policies were on the ballot. They’ll say the country has repudiated his administration and its agenda, and therefore he should agree to the things they want to do instead. They’ll say they were given a mandate by the American people.

Which, when you think about it, is absurd. Given how many close elections there are this year, it would be odd to say that if Bruce Braley and Mark Udall had managed to get slightly more of their voters to the polls, then that would have meant America chose one course, while if those two candidates’ turnout operations couldn’t quite get them over the finish line, then America made a different choice.

A cautious reading of the polls suggests that Republicans could absolutely blow it. Nothing is guaranteed in life. The press should, however, be a bit embarrassed by their goalpost shifting. It was only months ago that it seemed unlikely that purple-to-blue states like Colorado and Iowa would be competitive let alone potential GOP pickup opportunities. The fact that states like Kentucky, Georgia, and Kansas remain competitive is more a statement about candidate quality rather than the national mood. The repeated raising of the bar for GOP success virtually ensures that the press will be able to claim Republicans missed the mark on Wednesday morning. It is almost as though that is the media’s aim.

The most likely outcome of tomorrow’s elections will be that the GOP secures the largest majority in Congress the party has had since Prohibition. To spin that as some form of failure is utterly dishonest.