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The Trends Shaping 2010

By Chuck Raasch, USA Today - January 12, 2010

1. The Democrat "brand" is tarnished. Wall Street Journal-NBC polls found that the Democrats fell from a net-positive favorable rating of 18 percentage points in February to a 10-point net negative in December. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's racially charged statements about President Obama in a new book have added to the party's woes. During the 2008 campaign, Reid touted Obama's political prowess by saying Obama was "light-skinned" and did not talk like a "Negro."

ARCHIVE: Previous columns from Chuck Raasch

2. The Republican brand is in even worse shape than the Democrats' – 28% positive and 43% negative in December. In 1994, when the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, the GOP was a blank slate. Today, Americans are more familiar with Republicans in power, and some are wary of their return.

3. Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman, has become a problem for his party. Donors and other party officials have criticized lackluster party funding; the tour Steele is making promoting his new book, which outlines 12 steps he says the Republicans need to take to regain power; and Steele's propensity for saying impolitic or self-defeating things, such as the recent prediction that he didn't expect Republicans to re-take the House in 2010, a statement he reversed days later.

4. Obama's job approval numbers really matter. They have dipped below 50%, lower than any president after his first year in office since Ronald Reagan. The Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies found that since 1962, the average loss in the House of Representatives for the president's party when his approval is below 50 has been 41 seats. That would put Republicans within reach of retaking the House.

5. The health care debate has become proxy for a more fundamental battle over spending, personal liberty, and the size of government. Consequently, the elections this fall have a greater chance of becoming nationalized, making it harder for incumbents to use parochial issues to argue they are needed in Washington.

6. Obama's presidency has suffered two recent blows reminiscent of events that greatly turned Americans against the administration of George W. Bush. First, the flap over not televising health care negotiations on C-SPAN, contrary to an Obama campaign promise, has undercut Obama's pledge to be a transparent leader. Bush got into trouble when he expanded government after promising to rein it in.

Second, the security failures that allowed a potential bomber to get on an airplane headed for Detroit on Christmas Day raised fresh questions about government's competence. The political floor fell out from under Bush after his administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

7. The anti-tax, anti-big government Tea Party movement is the most active and most dynamic force in politics now, and both political parties risk a backlash if they do not take it seriously.

8. Where the Tea Party movement ends up in 2010 – inside the Republican Party or in a more independent or detached mode by November – is the biggest and most important unknown right now.

9. The demographics of the 2010 elections favor Republicans. People over 55 who worry about proposed Medicare cuts under the Democrats' health care plan are also traditionally the most likely to vote in non-presidential elections. And the "intensity gap" that helped carry Obama to victory in 2008, has flipped. Blacks and young people, his most loyal and energetic supporters in 2008, are among the least excited about 2010 elections.

10. This is a more fluid time than normal because of big-scale economic and foreign policy uncertainties. Economists say the recession has ended but average Americans don't think it has. And with a buildup of troops and a forecast of heavier fighting in Afghanistan, the impending trials of 9/11 suspects in New York, and an escalation of anti-al Qaida action in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, the odds of a significant national security event in 2010 are as high as ever.

Given that fluidity, the predictions of January could melt in summer's heat, but at the very least Republican prospects heading into 2010 are better than any election year since 2004.

Chuck Raasch writes from Washington for Gannett. Contact him at craasch@gannett.com, follow him at http://twitter.com/craasch or join in the conversation at http://www.facebook.com/raaschcolumn

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