It’s a ways out to forecast what will happen in November, but with speculation rife that the Republicans are going to come roaring back, perhaps regaining a majority in the House, it’s worth looking a bit forward in the crystal ball.
First, 2010 will be the third election in a row where the public mood was decidedly negative and wanting change. The Democrats benefited in the first two, but now as the party in power they’ll be hurt. Some in the GOP believe the mood represents a conservative uprising against liberalism. In 2008 people were equally convinced that the embrace of Obama meant a rejection of conservative principles for a more active state. In reality, neither ideological interpretation holds water. The GOP is benefiting in 2010 from the same dynamics that benefited Obama in 2008 – a country discontent and wanting change, even if they aren’t sure what kind of change to embrace.
But to what extent will a disgruntled public shift from supporting Obama’s promise of change to that of the Republican party? Will it be a tidal wave or a trickle. In Great Britain a similar mood worked against Labour in their election last Thursday. Yet when the votes were counted Gordon Brown had led the Labour Party to a more competitive defeat than people were expecting. The Conservatives couldn’t win a majority, and many pollsters were caught off guard by the strong Labour showing.
The reason I mention this is to note that wide range discontent does not necessarily transfer to electoral tidal wave. As the election nears, campaigns will become personal and the issues of the day will be whatever late summer and early fall bring (with the Democrats having some control over the agenda).
American elections have two dynamics which should protect the Democrats. First is the incumbency advantage. The word on the street is that this is currently a disadvantage as people are in a mood to ‘throw the bums out.’ But almost always the appearance of that mood is far stronger than the reality. People often come to decide either that their own candidate is an exception, or that compared to the alternative, they’re best serve keeping their Representative (or Senator). The loss of Senator Bennett in Utah is pointed to as a sign of incumbents in danger, but he was stopped at a state convention, where a small group of activists weld considerable power. That is far different than a statewide election.
Second, unlike British elections, people are voting only in part based on party and the country’s leadership. Most people focus on the individuals running for office. When Scott Brown won in Massachusetts it mattered that Coakley (his opponent) did not run a good campaign, and that he ran superb campaign portraying himself as an independent minded moderate Republican. Already the “tea partiers” have labeled him a “Rino” (Republican in name only) for some of his votes.
Both of these factors suggest to me that the talk of a Republican take over the House is premature and based on flimsy evidence. The Democrats go into the fall with a significant money advantage, and perhaps help from an unlikely source: the tea party movement. Recent polls show a rise of Democratic enthusiasm as the election nears, while GOP enthusiasm is down somewhat from the time of the health care vote. One cause for this is that Democratic minded voters don’t like the tone and message of the “tea parties,” and can be inspired to give money and time — and to vote — in order to prevent that group from expanding power.
Expect the Democrats to use quotes from Sarah Palin, some extreme images from tea party rallies (just as the right cherry picked what to show from anti-war demos, the left will do so here), and quotes from Republicans like Michelle Bachman to rally supporters to their cause. The message: help prevent the country from going in that scary right wing direction! With it hard to keep up the level of enthusiasm the Republicans had in late March, there may be more vigor in the Democratic campaigns than expected.
This creates a challenge for the Republicans. They need the enthusiasm, but don’t want to turn off moderate voters. They pulled that off with Scott Brown, endorsed by the tea party movement even though he’s more an Olympia Snow than a Jim DeMint. But will that be enough to get moderates who have voted Democratic in recent years to decide the Republicans offer the better alternative? Here it will really matter how the individuals running in the races campaign — they need to show reasoned pragmatism and not ideological fervor.
The Democrats have challenges as well. While the GOP often finds ideology as a thorn in its side, special interests vex the Democrats. Will Hispanics punish the party for slow movement on immigration reform? What about environmentalists concerned with climate change, or blacks worried that Obama hasn’t done enough for their interests? If Obama aggressively tries to satisfy these groups, he may get a lot of support, but also gives the GOP a storyline: Look at the politics of old, making deals, appeasing special interests, and running up debt as the country refuses to face serious problems. If Obama does not keep enthusiasm in these groups (which are more important in off year elections than Presidential ones), then the gain amongst moderates may not be enough to offset the loses.
The parties both know that the public wants cooperation to solve problems, hence the Democrats are complaining that the Republicans are running an obstructionist Congress, while the GOP says that the Democrats are ramming things through without trying to find compromise. The truth is fuzzier — the Democrats want to compromise, but not to the extent demanded by the Republicans for bi-partisanship. Moreover, at this point the Republicans think their hand will be much stronger after November, so it’s rational for them to obstruct for now.
I suspect that in November we’ll see modest Republican gains in the House, I’ll guess around 25. In the Senate the Republicans will gain four or five. These are significant gains and would put both houses in reach for the GOP in 2012 or more likely 2014. That said, with an electorate very evenly divided, a slight shift to either party could have a tremendous impact. And given the topsy turvy nature of current events these days, anything can happen between now and November!