The trend is not the Democrats’ friend. At least not in 2010. The party of the sitting president almost always suffers losses in midterm congressional elections. To that time-tested dynamic now add voter angst about high unemployment, big deficits and controversial legislation. Expect Senate majority leader Harry Reid to lose his effective 60-seat supermajority and Nancy Pelosi to hand the House back to the Republicans. Here’s why 2010 is looking like 1994 all over again:
1. Virginia and New Jersey. Big GOP wins in the gubernatorial races not only highlighted discontent with incumbents by recession-weary voters, they also greatly helped Republicans with candidate recruiting for 2010.
2. History. More big political change isn’t predicated on America rekindling its love for the Grand Old Party. A recent poll had the Republicans finishing a distant third in popularity behind a fictional Tea Party and the actual Democratic Party. Yet American politics has a regular ebb and flow. In 13 of the past 15 midterm elections going back to 1950, the party in control of the White House has lost an average of 22 seats in the House. In 10 of the past 15 midterms the party running the Senate has lost an average of three seats.
3. Mean Reversion. Democrats have a wide field to defend after huge victories in 2006 and 2008. Particularly in the House, there are lots of Democrats in places with a proven willingness to vote Republican. Currently 47 of them are in districts won by both John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004. And voters in those districts may be especially unhappy with a Democratic legislative agenda that causes many Americans mixed feelings.
4. Obama-Reid-Pelosi Agenda. A RealClearPolitics aggregation of polling data shows Americans disapprove of healthcare reform by a 51-38 margin. And only a little more than a third think the $787 billion stimulus plan has done much good, according to pollster Rasmussen. There’s also plenty of worry among the electorate that Washington spending is creating a dangerous level of government debt.
5. Rep. Parker Griffith. Griffith, elected in 2008, could be an electoral harbinger. His district, Alabama’s 5th, gave 60 percent of its votes to Bush in 2004, and 61 percent to McCain. He just switched from Democrat to Republican, saying he couldn’t belong to a party that favors healthcare reform that massively expands the role of government. Even though Griffith voted against the stimulus, cap-and-trade and healthcare plans, he clearly felt that guilt-by-party-association threatened his re-election.
6. Unemployment. Underlying voter unease with Capitol Hill is deep concern about unemployment. And that leads to a simple equation: Joblessness drives presidential approval ratings, and it’s those ratings that drive midterm congressional results. Despite a landslide win in 1980, for instance, unemployment approaching 11 percent drove Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings down to the low 40s in November 1982 when Republicans lost 26 House seats. (And only five narrow GOP victories by fewer than 50,000 votes kept the Senate even.)
As unemployment has risen this year, Obama’s approval has steadily eroded to around 50 percent currently. The White House says it doesn’t expect employment growth until the spring. And if even the economy begins to create jobs, the actual unemployment rate could still rise as the long-term unemployed begin to actively seek jobs again and thus start being counted by the Labor Department. It would take a year of 4 percent growth generating 200,000 to 250,000 jobs a month to bring the rate down to 9 percent. And even that would be twice as high as what Americans have been used to during the past two decades.
7. Discontent with Democrats. At the same time, the generic congressional ballot has shifted from a high single-digit Democratic lead to a low single-digit Republican lead as independents veer back to the GOP. What’s more, a recent poll by the liberal Daily Kos blog found just 56 percent of Democrats definitely or probably voting in 2010 vs. 81 percent of Republicans. Note that a new Rasmussen poll has Sen. Ben “60th Vote” Nelson, who won reelection in 2006 with 64 percent of the vote, down 61-30 in a hypothetical 2012 matchup vs. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Dems in both chambers will surely take note of those numbers. Indeed, the prospect of a terrible 2010 environment has already pushed some veteran Democratic legislators in competitive districts into retirement such as John Tanner of Tennessee and Brian Baird of Washington.
8. Economic Damage. Even if the unemployment rate falls a full percentage point next year, it may not help Democrats much. Americans only slowly regain their economic confidence after a deep recession. When Democrats lost the House and Senate in 1994, the economy had been growing steadily since the nasty 1990-91 downturn and unemployment had fallen sharply, though not fully to its pre-recession levels. Yet 72 percent of Americans at the time still thought the economy was “fair” or “poor,” according to Gallup.
As political forecaster Charlie Cook has noted, what happens in the House depends a lot on there being more Democrat retirements in competitive seats. The GOP needs a 40-seat pickup. The more Dem members that stick, the less likely a changeover. If the numbers start going north of 12-15, a warning signal should sound for Democrats. (In 1994, Democrat departures created 31 open seats, 22 of which were won by the GOP.) For now, Cook sees a possible 20-30 seat pickup in the House for the GOP and four to six in the Senate. (Harry Reid, Blanche Lincoln and Chris Dodd look especially vulnerable). But Cook may be underestimating how the dreadful New Normal in the economy will create a New Normal in politics in 2010.