Misreading the midterm tea leaves

November 8, 2010

By Cliff Young and Julia Clark

Yes, this was a Republican Year. From lowly dogcatcher to the venerable Senate and House, the GOP made significant gains. But how should the results of this electoral cycle be interpreted? Are we seeing the emergence of a “new Republican mandate” which will sweep away the Obama project because of his policy oversteps? Or is this merely the short-term expression of voter angst, precipitated by a dismal economy?

Pundits and politicos alike would have us believe that the Obama era is over, with the general elections in 2012 being a mere formality to an imminent Republican resurgence. Obama went too far left, or so the argument goes, and the Republican gains this year are a leading indicator of a re-adjustment.

In our view, this perspective is fundamentally wrong: the results of the present mid-term elections have little to do with the probable outcome of the general election in 2012. Obama, contrary to the expert opinion, is still very much in the driver’s seat. Here’s why.

First, most elections are about voter optimism (or lack thereof). Low optimism is usually the result of the economy doing poorly, and so people want to “throw the bums out.”  We pollsters call such elections “change elections,” which favor the party out of power. In contrast, when optimism is high, voters want “more of the same,” or continuity. Continuity elections favor the party in power.  Our own studies of hundreds of elections around the world show that about 80 percent of all elections can be classified according to this simple “change versus continuity” dichotomy, with the other 20 percent depending on the effectiveness of campaigns and the power of personalities.

The 2010 electoral cycle, with the poorest performing economy in a generation, was a change election which favored the party out of power – the Republicans. This means that there was no fundamental shift in American values, or a “new Republican mandate,” but instead that the election was the result of the natural ebbs and flows of voter sentiment, driven by larger economic forces.

Indeed, our polling shows that policy specifics tend to take on only secondary or tertiary roles in voter calculus compared to simple pocketbook issues and associated relative degree of optimism. Of course it isn’t always about the economy – events like wars, scandals, and other unforeseen wildcards do play a role in defining voters’ desire for change or continuity. The economy, though, typically is the most consistent factor, with the 2010 midterm elections being no exception.

Second, by this very logic, Obama’s relative odds for retaining the White House will depend on voter desire for change or continuity.  We believe that, even now at this nadir, Obama is the favorite for several reasons:

(a) Barring a major external economic shock or some other random act of God, all projections suggest that the economy will begin to pick up steam.  Economic projections put the unemployment rate at about 6.7 percent on average for 2012-2014, a sharp drop from today’s rate of over 9 percent. Our polling shows that a declining unemployment rate is the number-one signal for voters that the economy is improving. 2012, in other words, should be a year of positive signals. We may not be talking about a booming economy but at the very least it should be a superior economic situation when compared to today.

(b) Even given this terrible economic environment, Obama would still be in a strong position to take the White House in 2012.  Why? First, according to our models, the very fact that Obama is an incumbent means he is about three times more likely than all challengers—from either party—to win. And second, even with a tepid 45 percent approval rating, Obama has a 71 percent chance of taking the White House, and an 84 percent chance if his numbers go to 50 percent.

What are the implications of our analysis? From a political perspective, Obama should be less worried about his legislative laurels and more about the jobs numbers–though making some effort on deficit reduction would be an important bullet-point for his economic resume going into the 2012 election.

Republicans, in contrast, are running against the economic clock – a bad economic environment in 2010 may be a good one in 2012. As a starting point, re-framing the economic policy debate in their favor would help them get at least some credit for the improving numbers in 2012.

All in all, political analysts should be wary of committing the age-old logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, which assumes that an outcome is caused by an event simply because one follows the other. In our opinion, the 2010 Republican gains say very little about Obama’s prospects in 2012.

Cliff Young and Julia Clark are pollsters at Ipsos Public Affairs

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“Pundits and politicos alike would have us believe that the Obama era is over [but]Obama, contrary to the expert opinion, is still very much in the driver’s seat.”

Wrong, but not for the reasons the experts give.

1) I agree that Obama is likely to solidly win re-election in 2012.
2) The Dems may well take back the House of Representatives at that time. But:

3) The Obama era is *still* over, in the sense that his chances of getting substantive Dem-leaning legislation through Congress are just about nil during the last six years of his Presidency.

Why? The Senate. Specifically, (a) the way the Senate seats are broken into three classes by the year they come up for re-election, and (b) the filibuster.

If you look at the class of 2012, there are only 2-3 pickup opportunities for the Democrats, and lots of pickup opportunities for the GOP. And the class of 2014 is even worse: there really aren’t any Dem pickup opportunities, unless Susan Collins gets knocked off by a wingnut in a primary.

So Obama will never again have anything remotely approaching a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. He’ll need votes from Senators like Lamar Alexander and Kay Bailey Hutchinson who have been unwinnable in the current Congress in order to break a filibuster.

And since the GOP now routinely filibusters everything, that means that unless the Senate Dems have the guts to change the filibuster rules (which is a longshot), no Democratic legislation will pass the Congress between now and 2017, even if Obama wins in a landslide with major coattails in 2012.

Seriously, look at the three classes of Senate seats, which can easily be found at senate.gov. What GOP-held seats do you think the Dems will pick up in 2012? Which remaining GOP Senators can be persuaded to vote for Democratic legislation? And then how do you get to 60?

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