The Expectations Game

I was at a get together Saturday where most of the guests were conservative Republicans.    Two of them, in fact, are running for state office.    Since I am not conservative (more of a ‘left libertarian’), and because I work in academia, the conversations were different than those to which I’m accustomed.   Nonetheless a few things stood out: a) there was a lot of agreement between us, even if I am from a different part of the political spectrum; b) contrary to liberal prejudices about conservatives, these were intelligent, pragmatic people, and c) they are absolutely convinced there is going to be a GOP blowout this year.  Talk of the GOP winning 60 or 80 seats, and maybe taking the Senate was stated with near certainty.

That got me to wondering — is a Republican blowout an almost certainty, or do the Democrats have a chance to limit their loses and keep control of the House and Senate?    I recently wrote about the different scenarios for the election, leaving open the possibility that Democrats could bounce back (as well as the chance of a complete GOP blowout).    The Democrats bouncing back would still mean losing over two dozen house seats and a few Senate seats, but that given the expectations held by the pundits and the Republicans, anything short of the GOP capturing at least one branch of Congress would be seen as a victory for the Democrats.

The problem is that no matter how you look at an election cycle like this, you can find pundits and arguments supporting your most favored outcome.    And if you go with history and a quantitative analysis of existing polls, it seems to indicate a good likelihood of GOP gains of over forty (though likely not over fifty).

The argument that the GOP will run away with a victory of historical proportions is built on the expectation that the close races will swing overwhelmingly Republican in the waning days of the election because that is what happens in “wave” elections.   The argument that the Democrats will bounce back and retain a majority of the House is built on the notion that the Republicans have peaked, and the tea party rhetoric gives the Democrats a chance to build enthusiasm as people start to think of what it will mean with the Republicans in power.

The Democrats point to polls that show some signs of optimism in close House and Senate races, as well as improvement in Obama’s approval ratings recently.   Yet the data for these is slight, and Obama’s approval hangs at near 50%, where it’s been virtually all year (though it dipped down to near 42 a few weeks ago).

I think there are strong reasons to doubt an additional Republican “late surge.”  I think their support has peaked, and they’ll need to continue pressing to gain control of the House.  I doubt they can win the Senate.   There are also strong reasons to doubt the Democratic resurgence.   In general the polls are stable, and off year elections give Republicans a structural advantage — their voters are always more likely to vote.   Moreover, the races are individual and not a national referendum on either Obama or the tea party.  As such, people are unlikely to suddenly shift support.   On the other hand, incumbents still have advantages, even in an anti-incumbent year, and that may help save a few Democrats in trouble.

The best thing the Democrats have going for them is the expectations game.    The Republicans could gain 35 House seats and the story line will be GOP disappointment.   That sets the bar low for the Democrats.   A resurgence from predicted losses from 45 to 35 isn’t that hard to imagine, especially if one looks at how close these races are.  There are signs that Democrats are closing the enthusiasm gap.

Yet Gallup reports that in a high voter turn out scenario the GOP has a 12% lead, with 18% in a low voter turnout.    That also is bad news for the Democrats in every category except the expectations game.  There even a later Gallup survey showing the numbers narrowing to 8 and 10, for instance, would be seen as a sign of a comeback, even though those numbers would be exceedingly bad if it turned into a reality on November 2nd.

Finally, expectations are exceedingly high for the Republicans to accomplish something if elected.   It was losing at that expectations game that helped Bill Clinton recover from the 1994 drubbing of Congressional Democrats and easily win a second term in 1996.  It’s also the reason why the Democrats are in trouble — they won promising a new style of leadership in Washington, yet problems haven’t gone away.

So each party really has to play the hand they are dealt.  The Democrats have to put up a fight and embrace the low expectations.  They could lose 35 seats now, a drubbing in any year, but appear to have won in light of the expectations of a massive Republican surge.   The GOP is like the heavyweight champ, people expect not only a victory but a KO punch.   They have to try to keep momentum and support strong — they may not have the expectations game going for them, but at this point they do have the polls.

Finally, no matter who wins, it’s clear that we can go from massive Democratic support to massive Republican support virtually overnight.  It’s not because of what the party activists want in either party, but due to the fact the public wants them to work together and solve some problems.  If that can be accomplished after this election it will be a very good year no matter what the outcomes.   That’s the real message voters are trying to send.

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on October 11, 2010 - 14:34

    In regards to your final paragraph, I’m going to say ‘good luck’ on that happening. Given the ever upward ratcheting of partisan talk, I see this as a difficult task as long as a majority of incumbents stay seated.

    One thing I’ve noticed lately is Obama talking about how the GOP/Tea Party people do a lot of complaining and never come up with any realistic solutions. I seem to remember the same statements, more or less, aimed in the opposite direction prior to the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress. It seems to be a statement made in desperation to appeal to voters, as the way I see things, who ever makes the accusation is saying these things because they feel that any ideas that don’t fit into their own plan or ideology, are plans and ideas that aren’t ‘realistic’ in their own eyes, and therefore altogether fail the ‘realistic’ litmus test.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on October 11, 2010 - 23:37

    Yup, it’s easier to run in opposition because you don’t have to give many specifics! The other side complains, but it doesn’t usually do much good when things are going poorly. I actually think Obama might seriously reach out to the GOP if they get a majority, and maybe having one election swing big to the Democrats followed by another to the Republicans they’ll realize that this isn’t working. But then again, I’m an optimist!

  3. #3 by renaissanceguy on October 15, 2010 - 16:13

    I am skeptical of the claim that people want Democrats and Republicans to work together. Why have two parties at all if they are not supposed to oppose each other generally?

    I do believe that people want solutions to problems. However, nobody agrees either on the problems or on the solutions. We are very polarized right now.

    It is insincere for members of either party to claim that the other side has proposed nothing. But that’s politics!

    Why can’t we all be honest and just admit that the two parties oppose each other, and that’s okay?

    Of course, I dream of viable third and fourth parties, but that’s another topic altogether.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on October 15, 2010 - 17:04

    Actually there is a lot of research (a colleague of mine is an Americanist – studies American politics) that average folk (not political junkies or those active) do want cooperation, and aren’t as distant from each other, left or right. That’s why an electorate that voted overwhelmingly Democratic and for Obama in 2008 might go big for the GOP in 2010, and maybe back in 2012. They aren’t into ideology but pragmatic problem solving.

    Also, the way our system is structured it is impossible for one party to truly implement it’s preferences. If they do not cooperate, they will fail — especially if the choices are tough. This has been true even when parties have clear majorities. Look how hard it was for Obama to barely get a watered down health care bill passed. So if they don’t work together, the problems won’t get solved. Neither party is strong enough on its own. (In the British system it’s different. I personally have voted Republican in Senate races here even when I agreed more with the Democrat because I thought the Republican would be willing to work to find compromises. That used to be far more common.

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