2010: Anti-Incumbent, Anti-Liberal, or Anti-Democrat?

2010: Anti-Incumbent, Anti-Liberal, or Anti-Democrat?

By Sean Trende - May 18, 2010

Almost all election analysts now agree that 2010 will not be a good year for Democrats. The latest RCP Averages for the major Senate races show Republicans picking up 7 Senate seats (down from 8 one month ago). This is a striking reversal from the early months of Obama's presidency, when most forecasters were predicting Democratic gains.

The House has shown similar movement. Early in the cycle, pundits predicted sunny days for the Democrats in November of 2010, with beltway forecasters like Charlie Cook ("Obama's Democrats are heading down a track much closer to 1934's [when they picked up seats]") and Stu Rothenberg ("[T]he chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero") arguing that major GOP gains were close to impossible. Today it is a different story, and Cook now believes that it is hard to see how Democrats keep the House, while Rothenberg sees a 25-30 seat pickup (with gains in excess of 40 seats possible). I see a 50-seat Democratic loss as the most likely outcome, with the potential for things to get considerably worse.

One way to sort through these different scenarios is to examine what drives these losses for Democrats. Is 2010 shaping up to be an Anti-Incumbent, Anti-Liberal or Anti-Democratic year? This isn't easily reducible to statistical testing, but I think it goes a long way toward explaining whether Democrats will lose 20 seats, 50 seats, or 80 seats.  Let's examine all three scenarios a bit more closely.

Anti-Incumbent Year:  Under this scenario, the voters head to the polls this November ready to vent their frustrations with incumbents of both parties.  The Democrats still lose seats, but that's more a function of the fact that they hold more seats to begin with than anything else. Unsurprisingly, this is the story that Democrats are trying to sell (Republicans did the same in 2006 and 2008).

The recent primary elections do point toward bipartisan ire directed at Congress. The obvious stories are the headline-grabbers: Republican Senator Bob Bennett of Utah finished third at a party convention, denying him a fourth term; Democratic Congressman Alan Mollohan of West Virginia lost a primary race 56%-44%, denying him a fifteenth term. Digging beneath the headlines we see poor results pretty much across-the-board for Republicans and Democrats alike in West Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Utah and Nebrasksa. An incumbent receving more than 70% of the primary vote is the exception rather than the rule this season.

Nevertheless, I don't think it is likely that this will be a generalized anti-incumbent election. The reason is pretty simple: We don't have "anti-incumbent" elections in this country. Stu Rothenberg noted in 2006 that the closest we've come in the past fifty years to a generalized anti-incumbent election was 1990, when six Democrats and nine Republicans lost in the general election, and in 1978, when 14 Democrats and five Republicans were defeated that November.

Now this doesn't mean that we'll never have a generalized "throw the bums out" election. And if we were to have such an election, I suspect that this would be the year. But the bottom line is that primaries are just that: primaries. Come November, angry voters almost always vent their spleen on the President's party.

Anti-liberal year: Unlike the anti-incumbent year, we do have a good template for an anti-liberal year: 1994. Now obviously I don't mean that all liberals will lose if this is an anti-liberal year. After all, the vast majority of liberal Democrats won in 1994.

What I mean is that in 1994 we saw a backlash against liberal Democrats in conservative districts. Twenty-six of the 34 defeated Democrats came from districts that leaned Republican. As I explained last summer:

There were two controversial pieces of legislation that defined the Clinton Administration for Republican-leaning voters: the assault weapons ban and the first Clinton budget (a.k.a. the tax hike). If we look at the fifteen Democrats who voted against both pieces of legislation, only one lost (she represented a district that gave Bush a 15-point win in 1992). In fact, about half of [these Democrats] saw their share of the vote increase or stay roughly the same from 1992!

Let's move on to Democratic incumbents who represented Republican-leaning districts who voted for only one of these two pieces of legislation. There were thirty-seven such Democrats. The casualty rate here is a little higher; thirteen of them, or thirty-five percent of them, lost. And of the twenty-two Democrats from Republican-leaning districts who voted for both pieces of controversial legislation, ten of them (45%) lost.

This is consistent with the campaign that Republicans ran in 1994. They claimed Clinton spent too much, taxed too much, and on social issues was on the wrong side of guns, gays, and God. The unintended consequence of this type of campaign, though, was that it gave Democrats who were relatively conservative and who voted against this agenda cover against the GOP message.

Let's look at what an anti-liberal wave would look like in 2010. I think there are probably three key votes that will be talked about in conservative districts in the elections for the 112th Congress: the stimulus, cap and trade, and the health care vote. There are 73 Democrats in Republican-leaning districts; 12 of these are not seeking re-election or were defeated in a primary.

Twenty-one of these Democrats seeking re-election supported all three Democratic agenda items, while another twenty-one supported two of the three. If we assume that these Democrats lose at about the same forty percent clip that Democrats who supported the Clinton agenda lost back in 1994, that represents seventeen seats lost. Another sixteen voted for one of the three items; that would translate to a five seat loss using 1994 as an analogy. Finally, of the three who voted against all three major portions of the Democratic agenda in 2009 and 2010, let's assume one loses.

When added to the twelve Republican-leaning open seats (Democrats lost all of the Republican-leaning open seats in 1994), that translates to a 35-seat Democratic loss; if we assume that 12 or so Democrats in marginally Democratic districts will lose as well (as was the case in 1994), that gets us about to a 1994 scenario.
We don't have much polling to test this scenario, but the polls we do have for Democrats in Republican-leaning seats who supported the President's agenda - Carol Shea-Porter, Tim Bishop, Debbie Halvorsen, Mark Schauer, Baron Hill, John Spratt, Harry Teague, Earl Pomeroy - have ranged from mediocre to horrible. An anti-liberal election is certainly plausible, but there's a possibility it could get even worse.

Anti-Democrat year: Although 1994 and 2006 are generally lumped together as wave elections, they were actually two very distinct phenomena. As I noted above, many Democrats in Republican-leaning districts thrived in 1994.

But this was not the case for Republicans in 2006. Heading into those midterms, there were 27 Republicans who represented Democratic-PVI districts. After the midterms, there were 14 (today there are 8, using the 2004 PVIs). That's more than half of the Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts losing, versus about a third of analogous Democrats losing in 1994.

The most interesting thing about 2006 is that even the Republicans who survived saw a marked decline in their performances. The only Republicans representing Democratic districts who didn't have a close call in 2006 were Mike Castle (DE-AL), Bill Young (FL-10), Frank LoBiondo (NJ-02), Jim Saxton (NJ-03), and Peter King (NY-03); even they saw decreases in their performances from 2004. Again, this contrasts with 1994, when half of the Democrats in Republican-leaning districts who opposed Clinton's agenda saw their percentages increase from 1992, despite the substantial national shift against Democrats.

What's also interesting about 2006 is that it didn't matter whether a Republican was liberal or conservative. Of the twenty most liberal Republicans in the 109th Congress, nine were defeated, one didn't seek re-election while four won only by a whisker. This against stands in marked contrast to 1994, when only two of the twenty most conservative Democrats seeking re-election lost.

That's because the Democrats' theme in 2006 was not generally "vote against Jim Leach and his radical conservatism." Such an argument wouldn't have passed the smell test, especially since Leach was a firm opponent of the Iraq War and was the second-most liberal Republican in the House.

Rather, the argument was "if you vote for Jim Leach, you empower George W. Bush and the Republican leaders in Congress." Dave Loebsack was actually complimentary of Jim Leach, and almost seemed sad to have to run against him at times.

If 2010 is an anti-Democrat year, rather than simply an anti-liberal year, we could see absolutely catastrophic results for the Democrats in the 73 Republican-leaning districts. If we take the fifty percent casualty rate that the Republicans suffered in 2006, add in the twelve retiring Congressmen, and again assume a dozen Democratic Congressmen in marginally Democratic districts lose, then the Democrats are on pace to lose over sixty seats.

So will this year be anti-liberal or anti-Democrat? It's too early to say definitively. One sign may come in the special election in PA-12. This is still a Democratic-leaning district; John McCain carried it by about 1,000 votes against Barack Obama, but it also voted for John Kerry and Al Gore. It's probably also the most heavily Democratic district remaining in Appalachia by a fair margin, save for neighboring OH-06, and voter registration still heavily favors the Democrats. Most of the district hasn't been represented by a Republican since the early 1930s.

If Mark Critz pulls out a win by a healthy margin, then it could be a good sign that a generalized anti-Democratic mood isn’t materializing.  This doesn’t rule out the anti-liberal scenario described above by any means, since Critz is running as a fairly conservative Democrat, but it does indicate that voters in marginal districts are still willing to listen to Democratic candidates who promise to vote against health care reform and the like. 

But if Critz loses or barely wins, it would be an ominous sign.  Democratic turnout on Tuesday will be driven by the Democratic Senate and gubernatorial primaries occurring that day, narrowing the enthusiasm gap with Republicans in a way that won’t be likely in November.  If a conservative Democrat running in a conservative Democratic district with upticket races driving turnout can’t win this year, it bodes poorly for the sixty or so Democrats running in districts that vote even more Republican at the Presidential level (I’d guess there’s eighty or ninety districts represented by Democrats that vote more Republican when you look at the state and federal levels). 

Other signs exist that this could be an anti-Democrat year.  Democrats who have generally opposed the President’s agenda have had pretty dismal polling results crop up.  Rasmussen reports that Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin leads her Republican opponent by a slender 45%-41% margin.  Frank Kratovil’s own polling from last fall – taken in a much better environment for Democrats – had him leading his GOP opponent by two points.  And veteran Democrat Chet Edwards is down 53%-41% against Republican Bill Flores in the Republican’s polling; Edwards isn’t disputing the numbers.  Even conservative Democrats with golden last names like Boren have shown some real polling weakness.  

The historical record provides no support for 2010 being a generalized anti-incumbent year; the elections to date this cycle in major statewide races certainly don’t support this scenario either.  The real question is whether moderate or conservative Democrats who oppose the Beltway Democratic agenda will be given cover from angry voters, or whether the electorate will thoroughly clean house this fall.  That’s where the difference between a bad Democratic year and a debacle of historic proportions can be found.

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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