WASHINGTON – To hear top strategists from both parties tell it, Democratic candidates are clawing their way back from an electoral abyss, making small but measurable gains that might enable them to keep their congressional majorities this fall.
The question is, do these political pros really believe it? Or are both parties pushing a Democrats-are-improving narrative to motivate their core voters who, oddly enough, respond positively to the same message?
Whether it's cynicism or reality, leaders in both parties are playing an expectations game aimed at voters who might stay home if they think their cause is either hopeless or assured of victory. These leaders say prospects are slightly less dire for Democrats, even though the party remains almost certain to suffer big losses in House, Senate and gubernatorial races on Nov. 2.
"Democrats have momentum," said a recent three-page memo from Jennifer Crider, a top aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She cited a pair of polls suggesting that voters, who preferred Republican candidates a short time ago, now are about evenly split on which party should run Congress.
Crider's analysis omitted several polls that showed a clear GOP advantage on the "generic ballot" question. But a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Democrats have halved the Republicans' early September edge on that question.
Meanwhile, some top Republicans also are warning that their party's expected victories after two years of Democrat Barack Obama's presidency might not be as extensive as once thought. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, head of the GOP committee that oversees House races, raised eyebrows last week with a memo suggesting that Republicans may fall short of taking over the House.
"With less than a month to go," Sessions wrote, "it's clear that Democrats will, at the very least, lose functional control of the House."
Many saw the term "functional control" as a hint that Republicans might have to settle for trying to impede the progress of a significantly reduced Democratic majority in the next Congress.
A party's net gain of, say, 35 or 38 House seats in almost any election year would trigger huge celebrations. But GOP officials raised expectations so high this summer that many partisans will be deeply disappointed by anything less than 40 seats — the magic number for taking control of the 435-member chamber and deposing Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
Campaign consultants differ on whether Sessions was genuinely reflecting recent gains by Democrats or prodding conservative voters not to assume the ball game is already won. Todd Harris, a veteran of several GOP campaigns, said strategists in both parties have incentives to portray the contests as tightening.
"The last thing you ever want, when a month out, is for your base to be either dispirited or complacent," said Harris, who now works for Marco Rubio's Senate campaign in Florida. "So the Democrats are trying to fire up their base and make them believe that the sky is not falling. And Republican leaders are trying to motivate our base to make sure that nobody takes anything for granted."
Crider, in an interview, said she is not trying to manipulate voters' sentiments or exaggerating signs of possible Democratic improvements.
"I think things turned the corner starting in the last week of August," she said, when Democratic-leaning voters began to "come home" and realize what is at stake this fall.
Republicans, she said, are trying to dampen the unreasonably high expectations that they raised throughout the spring and summer.
"They popped the champagne on a guaranteed Republican victory six months ago," Crider said. "Now they're trying to shove the cork back in the bottle."
Even some Republican loyalists wonder if House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, acted prematurely in a series of national appearances that some dubbed his "speaker-in-waiting tour." Several Republicans said Boehner can expect a challenge for his party leadership post if the GOP falls short of a House majority — even if they pick up an impressive three dozen seats.
"There is a definite expectation among our base that we are in the midst of a very special political moment," Harris said. "There will be hell to pay among our activists if they get the sense that any Republican leaders didn't take full advantage of this political environment."
David Plouffe, Obama's presidential campaign manager, is playing his own expectations game, saying anything short of a GOP landslide should be considered a setback for Republicans.
"By their definition, success is winning back the House, winning back the Senate and winning every major governor's race," Plouffe told reporters. "When you've got winds this strong in your favor, that's the kind of election you need to have — or it should be considered a colossal failure."
There are ample reasons for Republican optimism. Poll after poll shows deep voter discontent and even anger at Obama's and congressional Democrats' leadership. The polls show that conservative voters are much more motivated than liberals.
An analysis by the Democratic-leaning group Third Way notes that more voters now call themselves conservatives, and fewer call themselves liberals, than in 2008. "Given the unfavorable math of a larger conservative bloc," the analysis says, "Democratic candidates can't win just by matching President Obama's performance in 2008."
Despite such findings, GOP operatives are warning voters they must stay fired up and show up at election booths on Nov. 2 to achieve what seems within reach.
The Republican team "can't find the end zone without your support," former football coach Lou Holtz wrote in a fundraising letter for GOP House candidates. "It may mean the difference between 38 seats and the majority."
AP National Political Writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.