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GOP Would Win House Today, But...

GOP Would Win House Today, But...

By David Paul Kuhn - April 15, 2010

Democrats' headwinds have only stiffened since healthcare reform passed. President Obama's popularity has ebbed to new lows. Americans have tilted more toward electing Republicans. If the election was today, and the past is prologue, the GOP would likely win the House.

But the election is not today. And winds can change. Since early last year, many analysts have looked to two midterm races for answers about the coming election. The president's party loses a manageable number of House seats, say in the 20s -- a la 1982. In the second scenario, Democrats lose about twice as many seats and their House majority -- a la 1994.

Of course, no election perfectly mimics the past. But the similarities between 2010 and the two notable cycles are unmistakable. First-term presidents who led their party back to the White House. Presidents who struggle to maintain that power as the tide of public opinion turns against them.

Democrats have reasons to fear that tide could turn into a tidal wave. This is what happened to Bill Clinton. Democrats' 257-seat majority is reasonably safe if at least 48 percent of registered voters favor electing a Democrat in their district, based on the Gallup Poll's forecasting model. Gallup measures Democrats at 44 percent today (the RealClearPolitics average is 42 percent). Both are below the model's floor. Times are that bad for Democrats.

A Democratic ballot at 45 percent, as Gallup's model forecasts, means Democrats hold only 175 to 197 seats. Republicans easily win back the House.

Not even 1994 looked like 1994 at this point. In the spring of that year, Democrats were slightly ahead in the generic ballot. And as every political junkie knows, even a tied generic ballot favors Republicans. GOP voters turn out at higher rates in midterms. Obama also cannot count on his 2008 coalition. The two groups he won historic mandates with, youth and blacks, have poor midterm turnout rates.

There was hope in Democratic circles that the passage of healthcare reform could turn their image around. Predictably, however, Republicans retain the momentum. Forty-eight percent of Republicans are "very enthusiastic" about voting," according to Gallup, compared to 30 percent of Democrats.

And Obama is not helping his party. The first-term president has an approval rating below 50 percent. That historically means big midterm losses. One calculation comes from Republican pollster Glen Bolger. He found that in midterm elections since 1962, a sub-50 approval rating equals an average loss of 41 seats (the GOP needs 40 seats to win back the House).

Obama's approval rating currently bobs in the mid to high 40s, similar to Clinton's approval heading into Election Day 1994.

But no singular statistic, or model, consistently forecasts a midterm outcome. Academic forecasters incorrectly predicted a massive landslide in 1982.

Ronald Reagan's approval rating was at 42 percent heading into his first midterm. In October 1982, the jobless rate moved from 9.8 to 10.1 percent. It was the highest rate since 1940. Reagan's recession, like today, was the worst downturn since the Great Depression. And this is a key reason comparisons between the two cycles have proven irresistible for many analysts.

That October 1982, the Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 57 percent of the voters said the country was on the "wrong track" (roughly equivalent to today's RCP "wrong track" average). Democrats began predicting 30 to 40-seat gains in the House. But Republican losses in the House were limited to 28 seats and the GOP retained its Senate majority.

Looking back, there were signs Reagan's Republicans might escape a landslide. First, the bad economy did not translate clearly to a Democratic advantage. That October, a CBS/New York Times poll found that a plurality of voters believed Democrats were "better able to handle unemployment." But a plurality of voters also viewed Republicans as more capable of handling the other major economic issue of the day, inflation (which was on the decline). The same month, a Time magazine poll found that only 33 percent of registered voters blamed Reagan for the rising unemployment rate, while 46 percent said it was a "situation Reagan inherited."

By Election Day, exit polls showed that about half of voters said Reaganomics was one of several important factors guiding their vote. But among them, opponents and proponents were evenly split. Unemployment was the most important issue to voters overall and those voters did strongly favor Democrats. But, as earlier polls exhibited, the brunt of the blame did not fall on Reagan.

In the same vein, most Americans do not blame Obama for the recession. One February CBS/Times poll found that 31% mostly blame the Bush administration for the poor economy, while only 7 percent said the Obama administration.

This recession appears, however, to be weighing down Democrats. Only 42 percent of voters approve of Obama's handling of the economy, according to recent CBS and Fox News polls. Last month, Democrats lost their overall advantage on the economic issue. The two parties are equally trusted to manage the economy, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Another poll shows a slight GOP advantage. Last year, Democrats led on the issue by double digits. The same trend occurred in 1994.

"Kick the bums out" is the biggest difference between Obama and Reagan's first midterm. In October 1982, 52 percent of voters planned to vote for their current congressman. Only 30 percent intended to vote for the challenger, according to the Time poll.

Voters today plan to vote for someone other than their current representative by a 45 to 41 percent margin, according to a Marist poll. The NBC/Journal poll finds that 51 percent favor a new lawmaker in their district. The poll found roughly the same trend in January 1994. Throughout 2006, though by a smaller margin, a plurality of voters also continuously said they wanted new blood in their district.

In 1994 and 2006, Gallup asked voters whether they believed most members deserve to be re-elected. The number fell below 40 percent in both cycles. Today, only 28 percent want most members reelected -- the lowest support for incumbents since the question was first asked in the early 1990s. These numbers are very bad omens for a party in power.

The alternative, however, does (somewhat) matter. Republicans would gain more from Democratic weakness if their party were in better shape. In 1994, a majority of the public had a favorable view of both parties. That's true of neither party today.

Democrats' brand is indeed on the decline. Only 41 percent now have a favorable view of the blue party, also a low point since Gallup first asked the question in the early 1990s. But the public's view of the GOP is equivalently bad. Still, midterm elections are largely referendums on the party in power. Democratic doldrums could be enough to lift the minority party. It was for Democrats in 2006.

The makeup of Congress is another factor. The president's party did not control the House in 1982, as in 1994 or 2006. Today's historic anti-incumbent mood is more clearly trained on one party. And so is the negative view of Congress.

On Election Day 1982, Congress' approval rating was only 29 percent. But Reagan's party could share the blame with Democrats. Obama's troubles are more like Clinton's in this respect. Congress' current approval rating, 23 percent, precisely matches the standing of Congress heading into the 1994 election.

Voters' most important issues were especially varied in 1994, according to exit polls -- the economy and jobs, but also the deficit, taxes, healthcare and crime. The economy dwarfed all other issues in 1982. And like 1982, the economy overshadows all other issues today. But vintage 1994 issues also concern voters, like healthcare and the deficit.

Other variables, however, undermine clean comparisons with 1994 and 1982. It's not only the different issue matrix or the obvious unknowns -- the potential for unpredictable events, the condition of the economy in October, fundraising, the strength of both parties' strategy and campaigns.

Obama's margin of victory was 10 points above Clinton's. Ross Perot was a major reason Clinton pulled out his victory. The Perot effect, however, echoes the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. There are strong signs that voters who moved to Obama after the market crashed, like many independent white men, are returning to the GOP. Perot's voters also returned to Republicans in 1994, favoring GOP House candidates by a 2-to-1 margin.

We also easily forget how rarely 1994-like landslides come around. Before that year, no party had won a landslide victory in Congress only two years after losing the White House since 1920 (here too Perot confuses any broad conclusion, however).

More clearly, unlike today, Democrats did not seriously consider the potential for a blowout in 1994. But that warning could also hurt Democrats. Foreseen waves tend to inspire strong candidates, on the losing side, to wait for the next election.

The southern realignment was also afoot in 1994. But Democrats are due for a pullback this year as well. Republicans lost 54 House seats in the two previous elections. Most of those losses came in Republican leaning or swing districts. And if today's conditions persist, odds are Republicans victories will rival their recent losses.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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