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Did the "Pledge to America" work?

Did the "Pledge to America" help Republicans win control of the House? AP Photo

Two weeks removed from an election that saw their party gain at least 60 seats and recapture control of the House, Republicans are engaged in an active debate over whether their much-hyped "Pledge to America" deserves credit for the victory.

A post-election poll conducted for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee showed that four in ten voters were aware of the Pledge -- slightly higher than the percentage of people who were aware of the "Contract with America" in the wake of the 1994 wave election.

Of the 41 percent who said they were aware of the Pledge, 44 percent said it made them more likely to vote for the GOP candidate in their district while 32 percent said it made them less likely to do so.

In a previously unreleased McLaughlin & Associates post-election poll, a majority of voters -- 52 percent -- said they were aware of the Pledge while 44 percent said they were not. Awareness ran particularly high among independents (66 percent aware) and those who voted for Republicans for Congress (59 percent).

"The pledge significantly strengthened the fall campaign," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the architect of the 1994 Contract. Gingrich estimated that the Pledge "may have added 20 seats" to the Republican pickup on Nov. 2.

The argument in favor of the Pledge's positive influence is is that Republicans needed to push back against the "party of no" label being foisted upon them by Democrats and by putting out a set of policy proposals -- albeit it in the form of a 21-page document -- was the right remedy to that problem.

"Midterm elections tend to be referendum elections, which meant that our message needed to be 80 percent about them and 20 percent about us," said one senior party strategist deeply involved in the House campaign. "We also understood that voters wanted affirmation that Republicans were a viable alternative with a plan -- and that is what we succeeded in doing."

That's far from a unanimous position, however.

Former Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis, a former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that "no one can even recite" the Pledge and that it is a mistake on the part of Republicans to think that 2010 election was an affirmative vote for the GOP agenda.

"This election was to put the brakes on Obama," said Davis. "It was not an endorsement of the GOP. They must not misread their mandate."

In a Fix conversation with four aspiring Republican challengers earlier this fall, there was little talk of the Pledge; none of the quartet was willing to offer a full-throated endorsement of the document and the ideas contained therein.

A senior Republican consultant noted that "if we didn't have the Pledge to America we would have picked up the exact same number of didn't get or lose us a vote." The source added that the Pledge didn't "show up in the polling" as a voting issue.

In an early October Washington Post/ABC poll, roughly one in three people had heard of the Pledge; thirty-five percent of self-identified conservatives and 37 percent of Republicans said they were aware of it.

(Those numbers were slightly higher than Post/ABC polling on the Contract with America; a late October 1994 survey showed just 29 percent had head of the Contract.)

Among those who had heard of the Pledge, 23 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Republicans, 29 percent said it made them less likely to do so and 45 percent said it made no impact on their vote either way.

The back and forth over the Pledge is strikingly reminiscent of the (still ongoing) debate within the GOP over whether Republicans won the House in 1994 because of the Contract with America or in spite of it.

While conventional wisdom has congealed around the idea that the Contract was the crux of Republicans' return from 40 years in the House minority, there remains a strain of thought within the party that the Contract narrowed rather than broadened GOP gains that year. The argument goes that by putting out the Contract, Republicans handed Democrats a target at which to shoot at -- turning the election from a straight referendum on Democrats to a choice between the two parties.

Given that discussions about the political impact of the Contract still persist, it's hard to imagine the conversation about the Pledge's efficacy going away any time soon.

And, as evidenced above, polling can be used to draw entirely variant conclusions. With Republicans scoring such sweeping gains in the House, it's impossible to pinpoint whether -- and how much -- impact the Pledge had on the results. It very well could have mattered in a handful of races and been absolutely meaningless in others.

The verdict on the Pledge then will almost certainly be inconclusive. For those who advocated the necessity of it before the election, it will get a significant portion of the credit for the gains the party won. For those who thought the Pledge was unnecessary, it, will be regarded as having zero effect on the election.

By Chris Cillizza  | November 16, 2010; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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