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Democrats Didn't Prepare for a Year Like This

Democrats Didn't Prepare for a Year Like This

By Sean Trende - October 18, 2010

If you were to enter a time machine, travel back to February of this year, and ask Democrats why this year wouldn't be like 1994, you would have heard an awful lot along the lines of "this year we see it coming." Democrats felt that the fact that they could supposedly see the wave coming, unlike 1994 when it crested late, gave them an opportunity to right the ship, define their opponents, and maintain their hold on the House.

And, in fact, Democrats did prepare beautifully for a year like 1994. The problem is that the Democratic leadership was like the clichéd general fighting the last war. The terrain this cycle is much more perilous for Democrats than 1994 ever was. While the techniques that might have saved a Democratic majority in 1994 will save seats this cycle, they are simply insufficient to save a House majority this time around.

There are three "big" factors that determine the course of midterm elections: the state of the economy, the popularity of the President's agenda, and the number of seats that the President's party controls in the House. Then there are a number of smaller factors that round out how many seats the party loses on the edges, such as party fundraising, retirements in vulnerable districts, the quality of the challengers, the quality of the campaigns, and, early in the decade, the effects of redistricting.

The "big" factors in 1994 actually pointed toward a mild midterm; almost all of the predictive models missed it. The economy was still somewhat sluggish, but unemployment was falling and real disposable income was growing. The Democrats weren't particularly overexposed, as President Clinton had negative coattails in 1992. While Democrats had several members in Republican-leaning districts, many of those incumbents were well-entrenched, while many of those districts were still Democratic at the local level, and hadn't sent a Republican to Congress in decades (in some cases, in over a century).

The only "big" thing driving that election was President Clinton's controversial agenda; as I suggested last year, a vote for the crime bill and the first Clinton budget cost the average Democrat in a Republican-leaning district eight points, all other things being equal.

The small things are what killed Democrats in 1994. There were many retirements in vulnerable districts, and the creation of minority-majority districts in the South had weakened many white southern Democrats. Some incumbents had had their seats altered substantially, and had only run in their newly-shaped district in 1992. Most importantly, no one really believed the GOP could pick up the 40 seats they needed to take control of the House, resulting in lazy incumbents who did not bother defining their opponents until it was too late.

So this year, Democrats sought to fix the little things that they ignored in 1994, without realizing that they were just the little things. They bragged that they had kept retirements in vulnerable districts to a minimum. Their freshmen raised prodigious sums of money - most of them were over $1 million by the end of the 2nd quarter. They conducted their opposition research early and went on the air in a timely matter.

But this is a different kind of election than 1994, entirely. When my lay friends ask about this election, I explain that it is like seeing Haley's Comet; you'll usually only get to see it once in your lifetime. The economy is sluggish, the President has pursued an ambitious, controversial agenda, and the party is badly overexposed, with numerous first- and second- term Democrats occupying districts that had been sending Republicans to Congress for decades. It is what 1974 would have been if the Republicans had had 257 seats, what 1966 would have been if unemployment had been five points higher, what 1958 would have been if Eisenhower had pushed to roll back the New Deal.

The latest NPR poll shows just how daunting this environment really is. The poll looked first at the Democratic districts that the Cook Political Report listed as Tossup, as Leaning Republican pickup, or as a Likely Republican pickup. It then also looked at the 33 Democratic districts Cook listed as leaning Democrat.

The NPR poll - conducted jointly by a Republican and Democratic pollster - found that the President's approval rating in these districts is upside down at 41 percent to 55 percent. By a 41 percent to 47 percent margin, these voters want someone new representing them. And Republican voters in these districts are significantly more interested in this election than are Democrats.

But the worst news for Democrats is the actual ballot test. In the Tossup/Leans R/Likely R districts, Republicans are leading the Democrats 48 percent to 44 percent. Moreover, in the districts that Charlie Cook presently has leaning toward the Democrats, the Democrats are tied with Republicans.

This means that it is almost certainly the case that a substantial number of Democrats that Cook believes to be in relatively strong shape - numbers 54 to 86 in terms of likelihood to flip toward Republicans - are both below 50 percent and trailing their opponents. This is in a subsample where the median district is a neutral PVI, leaning neither Republican nor Democrat. So what would polling of the 25 districts Cook lists as Likely Democratic reveal? Surely some of them are in deep trouble as well.

To make matters worse, Republican pollster Glen Bolger reports that there was a disagreement among the two pollsters as to how to treat low interest voters that made it through the likely voter screen. This is critical, because when looking at the type of voters who typically turn out in the election, the GOP led in Tossup/Lean R/Likely R districts leaps to 53 percent to 41 percent, and the lead in the Lean Democrat districts goes up to 48 percent to 42 percent. The difference between a bad Democratic year and a horrendous one turns on some voters that aren't very excited about voting.

Democrats didn't prepare for this type of environment. Rather than do a bunch of little things right, they needed to turn around at least one of the big factors. Obviously they couldn't fix the fact that they are overexposed. There probably wasn't much more that they could have done about the economy.

That leaves the President's agenda as the one thing they could have changed. It was apparent by early November of last year that the President's agenda was turning off Independent voters and enticing Republicans to vote in droves. Democratic partisans argued that the early November elections simply showed the need to tack further leftward, and pass a healthcare bill. After all, the Democrats failed to pass a healthcare bill in 1994, and they lost the House.

But any illusions about the healthcare bill helping Democrats should have been dispelled in mid-January, when an obscure state senator defeated a sitting attorney general for Ted Kennedy's senate seat in a state that had given the Democratic Presidential candidate over 60 percent of the two-party vote in five straight elections.

Democrats did a lot of little things correctly this cycle, and it may yet help to blunt the effects of the incoming wave. But the big factors in this election - many, but not all of which the Democrats had little control over - are likely to ensure that a very large number of Democrats wakes up on November 3 to find out that they have been washed out to sea.

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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