The conventional wisdom these days is that the Republicans will almost certainly win majority control of the House of Representatives, perhaps winning as much as 45 to 50 seats, while the Democrats are likely to maintain a small majority in the Senate (recognizing that even a 50-50 split would mean Democratic control). Republicans are more enthusiastic (less likely to stay home in an off year election), motivated, and their supporting groups have money. Moreover, the economy is bad, and whether it was Ronald Reagan in 1982 or Bill Clinton in 1994, a President and his party do not look good when the economy is in the dumps. All the insulting comments about the President seem true; the glory of past campaigns is faded. Or, as James Carville famously put it in the 1992 campaign: “it’s the economy, stupid.”
Yet there are a number of reasons why the story line for this election may be “Democrats surprise prognosticators with smaller than expected loses and clear control over both Houses.” The reason is that while the economy is against them and the Republicans ahead in the polls, the GOP may have peaked, and may in fact be committing some unforced errors that give the Democrats an opportunity to pounce — should they get their act together. Consider the following:
1) The current state of polls. Republicans lead only slightly in the generic ballot (and some put the Democrats ahead), and in many individual races its still too close to call. For instance, in South Dakota a recent poll put the Democrat Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin slightly ahead of her Republican opponent. Yet in most predictions, she’s considered likely to lose — Nate Silver (under forecast center click ‘House’) has her odds of losing at 70% . The reason? Most prognosticators are predicting this to be a “wave” election like 1994, with the Republicans picking up the close races due to more motivated voters and the bandwagon effect.
However, it could also be the case that the Republicans have peaked, and the current infighting about the tea party and GOP insurgent primary winners will both weaken the GOP message and give ammo to the Democrats to point to the Republicans as not credible on the economy. Although the party in power gets the blame, most remember that the problems started with the Republicans in power, and support for the GOP by moderates is hardly overwhelming. If, as the campaign heats up and people start paying attention the GOP message seems shrill and extreme, a lot of people who now say they’ll vote for change will decide their current House or Senate member is a safer bet. There is a real possibility that the late voters will swing the Democrats not the Republicans. If that happens, if the GOP has peaked and under closer scrutiny will appear to many as less credible, then not only is the “wave” assumption wrong, but the final shift could go to the Democrats, not the Republicans.
In such a case, predictions for Republican gains of 45 or so seats could be halved. We could wake up on November 3rd and see Democratic loses of 20 to 25 seats. In the Senate instead of losing seven, the Democrats could lose only three. This sounds like a dramatic shift, but it really isn’t. Assuming these races will be reasonably close (and the polls suggest so), if a Republican “wave” doesn’t occur, and in fact the Democrats have even a small surge late in the campaign, small changes in total vote counts could have a dramatic impact on the final outcome. Moreover, this has happened before. In 1982, under similar economic conditions and with approval ratings even lower than President Obama’s, Ronald Reagan seemed certain to lose his majorities in Congress. Instead, the loses were far less than predicted, and the Republicans were spared an off year election like President Clinton’s Democrats would have in 1994 (when Clinton’s poll numbers were down — again, lower than Obama’s now).
In 1982 the conventional wisdom was predicting a major Democratic victory; in 1994 people had a sense it could be very bad for the Democrats, but the scope of GOP gains was much greater than anticipated. Now people are modeling their 2010 predictions on the 1994 case. But in many ways, including peoples’ expectations about the election, this could be more like 1982 than 1994.
2) The importance of enthusiasm. Every prediction for a Republican wave assumes that Democratic enthusiasm will not grow by November. Yet not only do the Democrats have a lot of money and resources, but their best ally may be the Republicans. The so-called tea party movement has brought extremists out who are saying things that turn off centrists and arouse otherwise less enthused Democrats.
For example, here in the state of Maine tea party favorite Paul Le Page won a crowded primary by having a strong loyal conservative base. Going into a fall election against Democrat Libby Mitchell and a moderately strong third party candidate, Le Page is up in early polling by 15-18%, a solid “likely R” in the Governor’s column. Yet some of his statements about the environment and education, plus a tendency for mean-spirited comments and a personal tax controversy that could stay in the headlines, suggests vulnerability. As independents and Democrats get closer to the election, the chance that they’ll be motivated to “stop LePage” makes this almost certain to be a much closer election than the early polls. Le Page’s current lead comes from being “against the status quo.”
Note two things: even though he still may win, it’s not certain, and few think his poll numbers will stay as high as they currently are. But if analysts are expecting a wave and continued Democratic apathy, models would predict his strength as stable or growing. Repeat this in other places, and one could imagine that even Republicans with apparently comfortable leads (especially in Senate races) could find those vanishing by November, even if they lack the negatives of a Le Page. The point: the wave may already have hit and may be receding because the enthusiasm gap is almost certain to narrow.
3) Uncertainties. Events between now and November 3rd will also certainly impact the election — and in one where so many races are close, unexpected turns of events could have a profound impact on the results.
My point is not to assure Democrats that it ‘won’t be so bad.’ The fascinating thing about this election is one can imagine scenarios which are reasonably likely but very different. The Republicans could pick up 45 seats in the House. The Democrats could hold Republican gains to about 20-25. If the Democrats want the latter result, they should not panic or give in the temptation to operate on the defensive. They need to arouse their voting base, and luckily for them the Republicans are giving them ammunition with which to do so. For the Republicans, the key to having this not be ‘the one that got away,’ is to avoid internal fighting and try to keep the pressure on the Democrats.
It may come down to how well the GOP can defend it’s message: cut taxes and cut spending. In the abstract everyone likes that, and if they can sell that message without having to actually provide too many details, they could end up with maximal gains. That’s a benefit of being in the opposition — you can be vague, while those in power have to defend specific acts and policies. The Democrats have to try to deconstruct the GOP message and raise questions about whether they are serious — and then get maximum mileage out of GOP divisions and sometimes extremist rhetoric. They have to get the voter to think, “gee, the Republicans didn’t do too well before and some of these guys are saying crazy things, I guess I’ll stick with my Representative…”
And as of September 23, 2010 there is still a lot of campaign time and left, and anything can happen.