Mike Littwin: Can Coffman, the escape artist, still break free when new poll shows him 11 points down?
Fair and Unbalanced
I have no way to judge the accuracy of The New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll of Colorado’s 6th Congressional District race. But I think I have a pretty good read on the reaction. If you saw the horror movie, “Get Out,” it’s like the hypnosis scene when Missy tells a paralyzed Chris, “Now you’re in the sunken place.”
What I mean is, if this poll is even close to being accurate, Mike Coffman and Colorado Republicans could be sinking fast.
I don’t know if you watched any of the live-action poll, which you could follow in real time on The New York Times site. It was, to put it mildly, a strange experience. For one thing, It took nearly 27,000 calls to get 500 people to respond, and you can’t but wonder if the other 26,000-plus would have agreed with the 500. But almost from the start, the numbers held the same bad news for Coffman, the five-term incumbent and well-known escape artist.
When the polling was done, Coffman was trailing upstart challenger Jason Crow by 11 points, 51-40. And if that isn’t enough to unnerve the Colorado GOP, there’s this: Donald Trump’s approval rating in the district is at a lowly 37 percent, his disapproval at 59. One more: When asked whether they prefer Democrats or Republicans to control the U.S. House, the respondents went 54-40 for Democrats.
These are not swing-district-type numbers. These are numbers you’d expect out of Boulder. Or somewhere in California.
But for Trump, the CD-6 number is not so far out of line with some of the latest national polls, in which Trump’s ratings are slipping into the low 40s and even high 30s. Midterms are always a referendum on the party holding the White House. Only three times since the Civil War has the out-of-power party won seats in the House. But this is not just any midterm. This is the Donald Trump midterm, and it’s hard to remember when the stakes have been much higher.
Still, Coffman is, beyond doubt, a survivor. His district, which is fairly evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliateds, has been rated a toss-up in the past three election cycles. Coffman won them all. He won the past two — against a pair of well-known candidates in Andrew Romanoff and Morgan Carroll — by nearly double figures.
As with any responsible pollster, the NYT/Siena poll offers a warning that there “are many ways (the poll) could be unrepresentative of the district in November.” And then it counts the ways. It’s one poll, and it’s always a fool’s game to put too much faith in any single poll. The poll, which is weighted, could have gotten the weighing wrong. There’s a significant margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 points.
But, let’s agree, 11 points in a poll conducted by respected pollsters are a few too many points to ignore.
We know Coffman has survived the best the Democrats could throw at him. And we know he easily survived the Trump factor in 2016 even though Hillary Clinton carried his district by nearly 10 points.
It would be a mistake to think, whatever the poll says, that Coffman can’t win again. But this poll will be well noted across the country because it’s that significant. The NYT/Siena people plan to poll 50 districts across the country. They plan to re-poll in certain districts, and let’s hope they come back to Colorado.
After all, a loss by someone like Coffman would be the kind of loss that would almost certainly cost the Republicans their majority in the House. Nate Silver, at fivethirty eight.com, has already put the odds of a Democratic takeover at 7 out of 8.
It’s true that Democrat Jason Crow seems to be running a good campaign against Coffman. But there’s more at work here than Crow. In the NYT/Siena poll, 48 percent of the respondents said they had no opinion of Crow. We all know who the elephant is in the polling booth — and you’ll just have to pardon the pun.
Colorado Politics has an interesting piece (it’s behind a paywall) on whether Coffman has been a Trump enabler — as Democrats accuse him of being — or a sometimes-when-it-matters-to-his-constituents Trump dissenter, as he hopes Democrats and independents see him. The answer is it depends on whom you ask.
At fivethirtyeight.com, they keep track of congressional voting records, and Coffman has taken the same position as Trump on 86 of 90 votes. That means less than you probably think, but tell that to Republicans who hammered Mark Udall with a similar argument about his level of voting agreement with Barack Obama.
Coffman’s team argues that you should look at the key issues, like Obamacare and immigration, and see how Coffman has stood up to Trump. Certainly, we’ve seen some strong anti-Trump words from Coffman. But here’s the Coffman problem. He doesn’t just want to have it both ways. He needs to have it both ways.
He needs Republicans, who support Trump by something like 90 percent, to come out in force to support him. He needs Democrats and unaffiliated voters, including those who have voted for him in the past, to think he’s a strong-minded independent. He even joined the bipartisan House Problem Solvers caucus, which, according to my unofficial count, has yet to solve any problems.
Here’s the Coffman dilemma in one revealing example. In Trump’s latest tweet-storm embarrassment — one of his more acute embarrassments — he accused Democrats of distorting a study showing that Puerto Rico suffered nearly 3,000 deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Trump didn’t stop there. He called his administration’s reaction to the storm one of the “incredible unsung success” stories despite the nearly 3,000 lost. And even after Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas, with five dead to that point, Trump was still arguing over Twitter about his performance in Puerto Rico.
After Trump’s first tweets about the number of dead, Coffman responded strongly, saying that they were “abhorrent.” But note how he said it: “I find it abhorrent to deny the number of those who were lost in Puerto Rico last year. FEMA and the administration should be focused on the storm bearing down on the east coast.”
Coffman took a strong shot at Trump without naming Trump. He called the tweets abhorrent without citing the tweets.
You can see the problem. There’s no doubt that Coffman is in a tough spot. And now he’s in a tough spot with a poll showing him 11 points behind.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.