Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Blue Shoots?

Predictions, as we all know, are very difficult -- especially about the future.*  So I don't really want to get into that business when it comes to the 2010 midterm elections..  I do, however, want to point out some reasons to doubt the conventional wisdom which, as I read it, is pointing to a historically large GOP landslide.

First, the signs overall for the GOP remain very good -- liberal pessimist Jonathan Chait quotes extensively from a nice lay-of-the-ground piece by Steve Lombardo that gives a number of reasons to expect this to be a very good Republican year.  However, some context is needed.  After all, knowing only that there's a Democratic president and a large Democratic majority in the House, we would predict pretty large losses for the Dems.  The question is whether "pretty large" turns out to be in the 25-35 range (Dems keep control of the House, normal losses) or in the 45-55 range (GOP control of the House and a landslide).   A  lot of what Lombardo lists are really incorporated in that first 25 seats that pretty much everyone expects the Dems to lose, rather than information that would predict worse losses.

With that in mind, I figured I'd highlight some developments that Chait doesn't mention that could be signs of relatively small losses.  I'm not, let me emphasize, predicting anything; mostly, I'm hearing a conventional wisdom that 2010 = 1994 (or perhaps even better for Republicans), and I think that's only one possible outcome, so I want to throw a bit of cold water on it.

1.  The recession is over.  Recovery is not strong to date, and there are lots of dangers out there...oil spill, ash cloud, Eurozone, commercial real estate...double dip is a real possibility.  But if the expansion does continue, it will be over a year old by election day. 

2.  While Dave Obey tossed on the towel today, overall Democratic retirements are smaller than they were in 1994, and we're getting basically to the end of the process. 

3.  Conventional wisdom has it that Barack Obama's approval ratings are plunging, enough so that he joked about it the other night at the WH Correspondents shindig, but in reality he's been basically steady for months -- probably not coincidentally, beginning about when the economy stopped shrinking and shredding jobs in large numbers (and also, for what it's worth, beginning at the height of the Town Hall/Tea Party stuff in August). 

4.  Who knows, but recently the GOP advantage in voter enthusiasm seems to be waning.  And numbers on health care are moving in the Democrats' direction a bit, as is the generic ballot measure (but not right track/wrong track). 

(I should mention that Lombardo cited the economy and, in slightly different form, Obama's approval ratings).

Add it all up, and at least Democrats can say that things are not getting worse, and Democratic optimists have some excuse for thinking that things are getting better.  To be clear: these indicators are all currently at levels that predict solid GOP gains, and there's no reason to expect anything other than a larger Republican conference in the House and Senate, regardless of what happens from this point on.  But Democrats looking for a bit of hope do have a few things to hang their hats on. 

*Apparently there's some uncertainty about the origin of that wonderful quotation, which gives me an excuse to quote a relevant Polsby's Law: Famous words migrate into famous mouths.


  1. Good stuff Jonathan. Personally, I think that by the time November rolls around, most people will have an idea that we're in a slow-but-steady recovery. That should staunch the Dems' losses somewhat.

    The problem is, even if they lose only 25 seats in November, the media will still spin it as an overwhelming rejection of Obama and his agenda! Then, the feckless Congressional Dems will interpret that as a sign to back off from all significant policy proposals (like cap-and-trade, immigration, etc.).

  2. I have to disagree, Andrew. The conventional DC wisdom has become so toxic for Dems that just holding the House would be seen as a victory at this point.

    That said. I wonder whether holding the House with a small majority (5 or 6 seats) would be worse than losing it to a small (again 5 or 6 seat) Republican majority. It would deny the Republicans the advantage of being able to run against united Democratic Washington and force them to participate in governing. I'm not saying the Dems would get a lot done but they aren't getting much done with a a 6 seat majority anyway.

  3. I was more sour on the Dems prospects last week than this week, and not because the economy has improved (because it's still slowly improving roughly like I expected.)

    Rather, this week's GOP primaries have shown very underwhelming turnout. Tea partiers haven't won, or even seriously threatened. That, plus those Gallup enthusiasm numbers, suggests to me that the fire and brimstone coming from the right is not the tip of the iceberg so much as the whole iceberg. Still angry, still motivated, but not representing too many more angry people.

  4. Matt (or anyone else up on the elections literature),

    Do we actually know anything about primary turnout as an indicator? I feel as if I should know the answer to that, but I don't. Gotta be a pain to study, since all primaries are certainly not created equal.

  5. The GOP peaked in March, around the time of the HCR, and since then Democrats have had a series of small but significant victories, not the least of which was the 1Q2010 GDP report. Polls in late April give Dems a slight advantage over Republicans of +2.3, which still mean Dem losses since it is a swing away from their +6 in 2008, but relatively minor.

    The worst thing that could happen to Republicans is to make gains but not retake Congress. That would embolden them to keep on their current path. They would them nominate some right-wing nut rather than try to please the center, and Obama will ride a victory wave like Reagan and Clinton, who both survived sluggish economies in their first term. It could result in Democrats holding the White House and solid majorities in Congress through to 2014.

  6. Not to be mean, but why exactly do people think the Republicans deserve to be rewarded? What is their governing plan, other than to go back to their disastrous management pre 2006? I am a moderate on everything and I don't love the Democrats, but jeebus, why would I want to elect a bunch of dumb, unprincipled God-botherers? And even worse, when they get in, their only goal will be to run a popular, elected President out of office as they did with B. Clinton. And don't start with fiscal bs when we have been in one of the worst panics / recessions since the 1920s when Republican fiscal austerity was a very bad no good idea.

  7. If the Republicans fail to retake the House, I can't see how they can avoid having it perceived as anything but a crushing defeat. Sure, you might see headlines that say things like "GOP makes significant gains in House," and FOX and other agitprop sources would make some effort to spin the results to their advantage no matter what happened. But they can't escape the fact that they've been betting on a full takeover. It is essential to their plans to repeal HCR. Those plans may not be very realistic in the first place, but Republicans won't even be able to maintain the illusion that they can succeed if they don't have a majority by November. What are they to say? "We'll get that majority by 2012, when we retake the presidency"? That's why they're fighting tooth and nail to get that majority, and won't settle for anything even slightly weaker.

  8. Kylopod, Andrew, CTH...

    Everyone can fight forever about who "wins" an election if the GOP gains lots of seats but remains in the minority...but I don't think that the spin, in such cases, matters very much at all. What will matter are the numbers, especially whether there's a mainstream Dem majority, and then whether Obama & the Dems remain relatively popular, which is going to depend a whole lot more on the economy than on who wins the spin war over the election.

  9. It seems to me that the Democrats are beginning to get the sense that actually governing (HCR, financial reform, climate, maybe immigration, etc) isn't as dangerous as they first seemed to believe, or were perceived to believe. I think they owe Obama a small debt of gratitude for leading by example. And conversely, the Republicans' reflexive cozying up to even the most nihilistically anti-government Tea partiers, as a way to bolster their anti-Obama cred, has now trapped now them into a de facto position of NOT governing, and that's a difficult platform if you're running for national office...even in this environment.

  10. To Andrew's point:

    "The problem is, even if they lose only 25 seats in November, the media will still spin it as an overwhelming rejection of Obama and his agenda! Then, the feckless Congressional Dems will interpret that as a sign to back off from all significant policy proposals (like cap-and-trade, immigration, etc.)"

    That is all the more reason why the typical "conventional wisdom" in regard to a historic takeover by the Republicans is so important for the Democrats right now, because when that does not happen, (which I don't think it will), it will be seen as a huge loss for the Republicans, even if they do pick up seats as they probably will.

    Jonathan, there are a few more critical points that you failed to mention about the promising signs for the Dems in November and here they are:

    1) The DNC outraised the RNC by $2 million in March. If you recall, March was the same month that HCR was passed and signed into law, and it was at the top of the RNC's agenda to raise money to defeat HCR. Yet the DNC outraised them by more than $2 million. What does that tell us? It tells us that, unlike 1994, the Democratic Base is fired up. A huge reason for the conventional wisdom red herring of the Dems experiencing huge losses this year is because traditionally the party in power's voters tend to sit midterms out and stay home. That does not look to me like it will be the case this year and the DNC fundraising in March is a good indicator that I am right. Which leads me to my second point.

    2) The republicans have made it clear that they plan on making repealing HCR their main campaign issue in November. After passing this historic bill with so much fan fare, that will be like waving a red flag in front of a bull to the Dem base. The Dems will not tolerate having HCR repealed, and even though the idea of repeal is in reality a fallacy, the Dem Pols won't play it that way and will make it seem that HCR is in real danger if the republicans take control of both houses. Again the Dem base, in addition to the Net Roots will NOT let that happen.

    3) Many popular parts of the HCR bill, including drug rebate checks will have kicked in before the November elections which will make HCR much more popular in the eyes of many voters who will suddenly begin to like it. This is further incentive for Dem and Independent voters to go to the polls to protect and insure that they don't lose what they now like about HCR.

    4) The Arizona Immigration Law has now fired up hispanic voters to act in their own best interests at the polls in November vs waiting until 2012. The polls show that the voters who are pushing the Arizona law are Republican/Tea Party voters in overwhelming numbers. This is a HUGE incentive for hispanics to go to the polls in November to insure a Dem majority is maintained and also for payback to Republicans.

    5) This is my second simplest point as it needs only a few words. David Plouffe was brought back into the WH right after the Scott Brown election. Enough said!

    6) My final point requires even fewer words. Obama will be on the campaign trail. Enough said #2

    I'm sure there are more things I can think of, but these six, in addition to what you have already noted Jonathan, are very good reasons for the Dems to be feeling really good right now...but, of course, it's best that they not show their hand because we wouldn't want to do anything to upset "conventional wisdom" now would we? Peace out!(-:


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