If David Cicilline were running right now in a midterm election, with its typically smaller and more conservative electorate, he’d probably be toast. Luckily for him, this is a presidential year – and he’s still the Democrat in a heavily Democratic congressional district.
In 2010, Cicilline won 81,269 votes out of 160,569. Two years earlier, with Barack Obama topping the ticket, Cicilline’s predecessor Patrick Kennedy won 145,254 votes – out of 211,702. And that was before redistricting made the 1st District even more friendly to Democrats.
The 1st District electorate of 2008 was 32% bigger than the 2010 electorate, and the Democratic vote total of 2008 was 79% higher. Everybody expects Cicilline to do worse than Kennedy did – but how much worse?
A Republican hasn’t won a U.S. House seat in Rhode Island in a presidential year since Ron Machtley in 1992, and he was the incumbent. An argument in Doherty’s favor is that Machtley won as a challenger in 1988 even as Rhode Island backed Michael Dukakis for president; on the other hand, that was 24 long years ago and Machtley was part of a winning ticket (John Chafee won re-election, too).
This year there’s also the David Vogel factor. Vogel, a relatively obscure independent, took 6% of the vote in this week’s WPRI 12 poll. It’s unlikely all those voters would be backing Brendan Doherty if Vogel wasn’t on the ballot, but it’s likely that at least some of them would have – perhaps enough to push Doherty into the lead. (He trailed 43% to 42%.) Thus Vogel may siphon off some of the anti-Cicilline vote that Doherty needs.
It’s true that 8% of voters are still undecided, more than enough to give Doherty a comfortable victory if they all swung to him. And the so-called “incumbent rule,” which says undecideds mostly break for the challenger, implies those voters will wind up backing Doherty. But as it turns out, the incumbent rule isn’t really borne out by the evidence from recent elections.
Cicilline doesn’t need to win big; he just needs to win. And he’ll get help on that front from the broader Democratic Party get-out-the-vote operation that also includes U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s re-election campaign, as well as Obama’s gravitational pull on sporadic voters. Doherty is mostly a man alone, already outperforming the top of the GOP ticket (Romney and Hinckley) by about 10 percentage points.
There’s also the final media blitz. Cicilline has a radio spot running in heavy rotation with Bill Clinton endorsing him, and as the old saying says, “Rhode Island is Clinton country.” Cicilline’s team is pleased with their final TV ads and thinks the NRCC’s brutal attack could actually backfire. They’ve got Patrick Kennedy coming to campaign this weekend, which means earned media and extra buzz at events.
None of this means Doherty is destined to lose on Tuesday; both sides know this race is tight. It’s just a reminder of what strong headwinds Doherty faces – and what an accomplishment it will be if he wins.
• Related: Photo: Top Dems rally around Cicilline at Slater Mill photo op (Nov. 1)
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said no Republican has won federal office in a presidential year since 1994; Lincoln Chafee did so in 2000.