The easily-forgotten Pledge

THE EASILY-FORGOTTEN PLEDGE…. Popular lore tells us that Newt Gingrich & Co. boldly unveiled the “Contract with America” in 1994, and soon after, Republicans claimed House and Senate majorities. We’re supposed to see a causal relationship — the GOP thrived because of the “Contract.”

A closer look suggests otherwise. Most Americans had no idea the “Contract” existed before Election Day, and there’s very little evidence to suggest the poll-tested document made any real difference in the results.

Sixteen years later, House Republicans unveiled the “Pledge to America.” Chris Cillizza noted yesterday that some are asking whether history repeated itself.

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. […]

“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.

Even for Republicans, this is deeply silly. GOP leaders unveiled their “Pledge,” and then largely forgot about it. Republican candidates weren’t running around touting their support for the agenda; it wasn’t included in any major advertising; and if I had to guess, I’d say independent polling would show a tiny percentage of Americans who said their vote was actually influenced by the widely-panned 21-page document.

Indeed, we don’t really have to guess. Less than a month before Election Day, and two weeks after the “Pledge” was released, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of the country had no idea what the “Pledge” was. In fact, only 37% of self-identified Republicans had heard of their own party’s 2010 agenda. What’s more, among those who had heard of the “Pledge,” the proposal hadn’t won anyone over — 45% said the agenda doesn’t make any difference, 29% said it makes them less likely to vote Republican, and 23% said it makes a GOP vote more likely.

To argue with a straight face that this contributed to Republican successes is absurd. The “Pledge” was forgotten almost immediately after it was unveiled.

What I suspect is going on here is that some Republicans want to pretend they have a mandate — they presented old, tired, failed, and discredited ideas; then they won; therefore Americans want Congress to adopt those old, tired, failed, and discredited ideas.

But this only works if the electorate actually knew of the document and liked its contents.

A senior Republican consultant told Cillizza that “if we didn’t have the Pledge to America we would have picked up the exact same number of seats….it didn’t get or lose us a vote.”

That’s clearly true.