How Bad Could 2010 Really Get For Democrats?

How Bad Could 2010 Really Get For Democrats?

By Sean Trende - April 14, 2010

Though Election Day is still months away, pundits have already begun to speculate on possible outcomes for this year's midterms. There's a general consensus that Democrats will lose seats in November, but beyond that opinions vary widely on how big those losses might be. Some argue that because of the advance notice, passage of health care, and an improving economy (or some combination of all three), Democrats will be able to limit their losses significantly. Others are predicting a repeat of 1994, when Democrats lost 50+ seats and control of the House.

So how bad could 2010 get for the Democrats? Let me say upfront that I tend to agree with analysts who argue that if we move into a "V"-shaped recovery and President Obama's job approval improves, Democratic losses could be limited to twenty or twenty-five seats.

That said, I think those who suggest that the House is barely in play, or that we are a long way from a 1994-style scenario are missing the mark. A 1994-style scenario is probably the most likely outcome at this point. Moreover, it is well within the realm of possibility - not merely a far-fetched scenario - that Democratic losses could climb into the 80 or 90-seat range. The Democrats are sailing into a perfect storm of factors influencing a midterm election, and if the situation declines for them in the ensuing months, I wouldn't be shocked to see Democratic losses eclipse 100 seats.

Consider that Democrats typically lead in the generic ballot, even if they do not gain control of Congress. In 2004, for example, Democrats led Republicans in 63 out of 72 generic ballot tests taken that year. Yet Republicans picked up a handful of seats in 2004 and won the popular vote by three points.

This year, five different polling companies have put Republicans in the lead for the generic ballot in the last two weeks alone - one reason why Michael Barone calls this the worst polling environment for Democrats "during my 50 years of following politics closely." The RCP Average has Republicans leading Democrats by 2.8 points on the generic ballot test. That should equate roughly to a 225-seat Republican majority (Republicans won the national vote by 5 points in 1994), which would almost represent a 50-seat pickup.

But many of these polls survey registered voters. Polling among likely voters, such as Rasmussen Reports, shows Republicans up by about 8-10 points, which would probably represent a seventy-seat pickup.

And the polls of the most highly energized voters are even worse for Democrats. Recent NBC/WSJ polling found that Democrats led by three points among registered voters. But among those most interested in the November elections, Republicans led by 13 points.

This reminds me of the polling that showed Martha Coakley up 15 points in early January, but which also showed her and Scott Brown tied among those most interested in the race.

The exit poll model I used in late 2009 to suggest that the Massachusetts Senate race would be a close one leads to a similar conclusion. You can read the article here for a more thorough explanation, but applying the model to a national ballot test suggests that the Democrats should lose the popular vote 57%-43%.

It isn't just the generic balloting that has been horrendous. Every Democratic Senate candidate except five from very blue states (Pat Leahy (VT), Chuck Schumer (NY), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Dan Inouye (HI) and Richard Blumenthal (CT)) has had at least one poll test placing him or her below 50% this cycle. Similarly, the individual House polling has been uniformly dismal for Democrats. Democrats in light blue districts , like Ben Ray Lujan and Jerry Costello, have been significantly below 50% in polls. Democrats in red districts who normally receive around 60% of the vote are below 50% as well. If these Democrats are truly below 50% in their polling, a ninety-seat pickup is not out of the question.

And this is the present situation. If unemployment doesn't abate and incomes don't rise much, President Obama could easily be hovering around 40% approval in November. What does the generic ballot, which is partially keyed off of the President's approval rating, look like then?

Why, then, do commentators resist the conclusion that 1994 is far from a worst-case scenario? After all, Democrats just finished winning the national popular vote by eight points in 2006 and by eleven points in 2008. Surely, given present conditions, Republicans could win by at least similar margins in 2010. And given the hole that Republicans are digging themselves out of, the accompanying seat swing would be massive.

The first reason that observers resist this conclusion is recent history. There hasn't been more than a 60+ seat swing in a midterm election in eighty years.

But there hasn't really been a midterm election like this one is shaping up to be in eighty years, either. Chart I below lists the "wave" midterm elections since the country began having regular midterm elections after the Civil War (before then, many states held their Congressional elections the year after and the year before the Presidential election, i.e. odd-numbered years, while other states followed the Presidential/midterm model). I've also marked whether the midterm election was marked by a poor economy, an overextended party, or a controversial agenda. The final column is the number of seats that the President's party lost on election night.

Bad Economy
Previous Wave
Controversial Agenda
Seats Lost
1922 x x 77
1914 x x 61
1910 57
1894 x x x 125
1890 x x 93
1874 x x x 96

The data show that in elections where two of these factors are present, the party that controls the Presidency loses about 50 seats. But in this election, all three factors are present. To get an idea what this means, imagine what 1974 might have looked like if 1972 had produced a Congressional landslide to go with the Presidential landslide, and Republicans had entered the year with 232 seats instead of 192 seats. What if the economy had been in recession in 1966? What if Eisenhower had followed a more partisan agenda before 1958? What if Roosevelt had enjoyed his typical coattails in 1944, instead of receiving the fairly narrow 242 seat majority?

Those elections probably would have looked like 1938, 1894, or 1874. In those elections, the American people took their vengeance out on a party that was perceived as incompetent, and that was predisposed to fall due to the massive size of its majority. What we're seeing in the polls is a manifestation of something similar. While the power of incumbency has increased significantly since the 1950s, it's also true that both the Republicans and the Democrats are national parties now for the first time in our history. If Republicans can win in Massachusetts, they can win just about anywhere. And remember, Republicans don't need to win in Massachusetts for a landslide; they could pick up seventy seats without winning a single one in a Democratic-leaning district.

Analysts also fail to appreciate the damage that Obama has done to the brand that allowed the Democrats to stay competitive in Congress during the 1990s, and win it in the 2000s. As I detailed last November, Bill Clinton's rebranding of the Democratic Party as a more libertarian party - culturally cosmopolitan and antipathetic toward the religious right, fiscally conservative and supportive of balanced budgets - allowed him to take what remained of the Party's historic Democratic base among Jacksonians and the white working class, keep minorities and white liberals, and then add on Northern suburbanites and voters in the Mountain West.

This brand filtered down to the Congressional level, where Democratic candidates could wrap themselves in the "New Democrat" label and win in places where Democrats had been losing ground. Today there are well over a hundred Democrats in these Mountain West/Jacksonian/northern Suburban/working class districts. This includes, by my count, about fifty such seats that the Democrats won from Republicans between 1996-2006, offsetting Republican gains in the Deep South and rural North and preventing Republicans from amassing big majorities during that time.

But Obama is shattering that coalition. As Jay Cost and I observed in early 2009, Obama lost the "Jacksonians" before he was even elected As I noted in my November piece on the Clinton coalition, the 2009 gubernatorial elections indicated that the Jacksonians are continuing to abandon the Democrats, both up and down the ticket.

But 2009 also demonstrated that other critical pieces of the Clinton coalition were abandoning Obama, pieces where Obama himself had actually improved upon Clinton's showings. Suburbia moved toward the Republicans in 2009 in both New Jersey and Virginia, and then did so again in 2010 in the Massachusetts election (Scott Brown handily carried the suburban Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Districts). The Massachusetts election revealed other problems for the Democrats as well. White working class voters in the Second, Third and Ninth Districts voted for the Republican.

The President is also showing real weakness in one more area that is critical to the Democrats' coalition: The Mountain West. For an idea of how the Democrats are faring in swing states, the map below illustrates a rough average of the President's approval in recent state polls. A dark red state has the President's net approval rating at negative 10 or less, while a dark blue state is positive ten or more.

Almost all of the Bush states are 10 points or more against the President now, while Florida and Ohio are close to -10. The President is underwater in all of the Mountain West states except for New Mexico, and badly so. If we extrapolate to the Congressional level, we can probably assume that in the average swing district, Democratic incumbents are probably running into serious headwinds.

The President's weakness in these states reveals another problem for his party. Since he is weak in Republican areas and swing areas, and yet doesn't have horrible approval ratings overall, he must be very, very popular among his party's base. Some polls have his approval ratings among African Americans at 95%. Even in Massachusetts, Martha Coakley managed to win the First, Seventh and Eighth Districts, which are home to the state's liberals and minorities.

The problem for the Democrats is that these voters are packed into a relatively few states and Congressional districts nationwide, diluting their vote share. This is why the median Congressional district is an R+2 district. Thus, the President could have a relatively healthy overall approval rating, but still be fairly unpopular in swing states and districts. The increased enthusiasm that Obama generated among minorities, the young and the liberal is useful, but only if it is realized in conjunction with Democratic approval in a few other categories.

President Obama's policy choices to date are wreaking havoc on the brand that Democrats cultivated carefully over the past twenty years. Bill Clinton worked long and hard to make it so that voters could say "fiscal conservative" and "Democrat" in the same sentence, but voters are finding it difficult to say that again.

If brand damage is truly seeping over into Congressional races - and the polling suggests it is - then the Democrats are in very, very deep trouble this election. There is a very real risk that they could be left with nothing more than Obama's base among young, liberal, and minority voters, which is packed into relatively few Congressional districts. It would be the Dukakis map transformed onto the Congressional level, minus the support in Appalachia. That would surely result in the Democratic caucus suffering huge losses, and in turn produce historic gains for the GOP this November.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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