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By Jay Cost

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A Primer on the 2010 House Midterm

What I'd like to do in this piece is offer you a sense of how voters will come to their congressional vote choices in November, and in so doing give you an impression of how various factors will affect the outcome.

This is not necessarily the best way to look at midterm elections, and it is certainly not the only way. But I'll say this: I've spent the last few years soaking up as much popular and scholarly commentary on congressional midterms as I could, and this is the framework I've put together for myself.

Here's the basic system. While the Framers of the Constitution figured that Congress would be the center of American political life, practically speaking the President has been the focal point of attention. So, we have to frame a voter's decision as whether or not to support the candidate of the President's party or the candidate of the opposition party.

I like to think of the vote choice as the product of four ordered questions. Every time a voter answers "Yes," the more likely he or she is to vote for the opposition. Also, I'm not directly factoring partisanship into this equation, but it does matter. Partisanship influences every answer given, and its influence has grown in recent cycles

Question 1. Am I upset with the current state of the country?

The first question is pretty straightforward, and the current results are not good for the 44th President.

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Less than one out of three Americans sees the country as heading in the right direction. And even on this first question, partisanship has a great deal of influence. Rasmussen recently found that 54% of Democrats and just 11% of Republicans thought the country was heading in the right direction. On the other hand, back in October 2007, when he found roughly similar aggregate opinion (24% said the country was heading in the right track, versus 31% now) - he found 43% of Republicans saying the country was on the right track versus just 6% of Democrats.

Question 2. Do I blame the President for the bad times?

Most Americans think times are bad, and right now there is about an equal split on this second question.

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Gallup can give some historical perspective on what a marginally negative answer to this question means. In the last sixty years, five Presidents have gone into a midterm congressional election with their net approval at or below sea level: George W. Bush in 2006, Bill Clinton in 1994, Ronald Reagan in 1982, Lyndon Johnson in 1966, and Harry Truman in 1946. All five midterms were "wave" elections in which the opposition party picked up a large enough number of House seats to affect substantially the policymaking process in Washington, D.C.

House elections really turn on how the President is viewed in 435 diverse districts. So, it is not simply President Obama's national job approval that matters, but also how it is distributed.

Of course, nobody is polling each of the 435 House districts, but we can still get a sense of where he stands. For instance, the RCP average currently shows the President at a net job approval of -0.8 points. By comparison, he beat John McCain by 7.3 points on Election Day. So, we can derive a rough estimate of the President's current job approval by subtracting 8.1 points off his victory margin in each House district.

When we do that, we find President Obama at or near net negative approval in about 70 Democratic-controlled House districts. This estimate seems fairly reasonable. As my colleague Sean Trende has noted, the median partisan voting index score for the House is Republican +2. With Obama at sea level in his nationwide job approval, we should expect that more than half of the 435 districts disapprove of him.

The actual number might even be higher than 70. This analysis assumes a uniform drop-off in net approval among all 435 districts, but this is unlikely. Obama's decline among soft partisans is probably greater than among strongly partisan Republicans, who never really supported him at all. This means that his decline relative to 2008 is probably tilted toward districts that went more strongly for him.

In fact, comparing Gallup's recent 50-state report on Obama's job approval to his 2008 election results shows little drop-off in almost all of the deep red states - Alabama, Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina, etc. The only heavily Republican state to show a big Obama decline is West Virginia, but on a sub-presidential level the Mountain State remains heavily Democratic. Most of his big declines were in either solidly Democratic bastions where the 2008 vote went heavily Democratic (e.g. Vermont, which gave him 67% of the vote but just 54% job approval today) or swing states that went heavily for the President (e.g. Wisconsin, which gave him 56% of the vote but just 48% job approval).

On a district level, it stands to reason that Obama's approval ratings have moved similarly. I expect that he has declined relatively little in very conservative districts, where he wasn't very popular to begin with. Also, I'd expect very little drop-off in majority-minority districts, as his African-American support has remained fairly constant. Most of his drop-off is probably concentrated in majority white Democratic districts, where he should still be comfortably above 50%, and in politically balanced districts that swung his way in 2008, where is probably now below 50%.

So, all in all, we can figure that a plurality of voters in 60 to 80 Democratic-held districts now answer Question #2 in the affirmative.

Question 3. Is my incumbent party candidate indistinguishable from the President?

If you think the state of the country is not good, and you've identified the President as a cause of that, your next question is whether the local incumbent party candidate should be lumped in with the Commander-in-Chief. This is the context in which congressional races are waged. The national mood and evaluations of the President set the general outline, then ultimately it is up to local candidates to angle for the best possible position in light of the broader framework.

In a year when Questions 1 and 2 are answered in the negative, many factors matter when it comes to evaluating the local incumbent party candidate:

a. Is he/she already a member of Congress? If not, and it's an open seat race, it'll be a tougher election for the incumbent party, as the race typically reflects national dynamics. Challengers are never as well known as incumbents, and so voters inevitably rely more on the party labels to make a decision. In a bad year for the incumbent party, that can be a decisive factor.

This is where the Democratic party's relatively few open seats will be an asset.

b. Does the incumbent have a history of independent thinking? Swing voters everywhere tend to prize independent thinking. They are the ideological descendants of George Washington, who generally hated factionalism. Even if they are upset with Obama this year, they are going to be at least somewhat partial to Democrats who have shown a willingness to defy their party leadership. This can make a difference for Democrats in at least a few districts, although the returning members will more often than not be the kind that the Daily Kos crowd hates, the reviled "ConservaDems."

Regardless of how outsized the GOP "wave" is this year, it is highly unlikely that it will overwhelm Gene Taylor in Mississippi's Fourth Congressional District. Based solely on structural factors, this comes as quite a surprise. The counties that make up his district were some of the first in the Deep South to swing to the GOP. They elected Trent Lott to the House in 1972, and they have consistently voted for Republican Presidents since 1980. Despite all this, Taylor is likely going to be a member in the upcoming Congress because nobody doubts that he is independent of his party's leadership. A similar effect helped Delaware's Mike Castle, a Republican, pull 61% of the vote in 2008 even as McCain won only 37% statewide. Polling suggests that Delaware remains generally supportive of President Obama, yet Castle is the odds-on favor to win Joe Biden's old Senate seat, in part because of his solid statewide reputation for independence.

Still, Taylor and Castle are outliers in a Congress that, in recent sessions, has seen an uptick in party line voting. Most Democrats in districts that are now tipped against the President are going to have a somewhat uphill battle in convincing their constituents that they should not be lumped in with Obama. Ultimately, it will depend on how they voted on key items like cap-and-trade and especially health care. Guys like Gene Taylor, an iconoclast with a reputation of defying his leadership when the district asks him to, are going to be much better positioned than guys like Tom Perriello (D-VA), a freshman from a Republican-leaning district who took a high-profile vote in favor of health care. The GOP is not going to take down every "Tom Perriello," but it is going to defeat quite a number of them.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, they have a large number of freshman and sophomore members who do not have much of a reputation for anything. This is a big reason why they have so few open seats to defend - freshmen and sophomores are unlikely to retire! - and it is a real liability for them.

c. Is the incumbent well liked? Some incumbents just never click with their constituents, and sometimes what was once a passionate love affair flames out. In a bad year for the incumbent party, these types tend to get cleaned out. Several such candidates went down to defeat in 2006 - most notable among them being Curt Weldon of PA-7, John Hostettler of IN-8 and Charles Taylor of NC-11. In 2004, they underperformed George W. Bush's share of the vote. Unsurprisingly, they lost by wide margins in 2006. Wave elections have a habit of taking down the weakest links in the party chain, which is bad news this year for Paul Kanjorski of PA-11.

Question 4. Is my district's opposition party candidate a marginally better alternative?

This question and the previous one are essentially answered simultaneously, and they blend together in many respects: a better opposition candidate means more money, which means a sharper criticism of the incumbent party in the district. But this is still a somewhat distinct query. You can't beat something with nothing, at least not most of the time.

This is where Harry Reid's strategy for victory becomes interesting. If public opinion polling is to believed, Nevadans have answered the first three questions in this way: Yes, Yes, and Oh Hell Yes. So, Reid's sole hope of electoral victory is to make Sharron Angle completely and totally unelectable. This also explains why the President has sharpened his already-sharp criticism of Republicans, and Democrats are apparently trolling around for dirt on the GOP in an unprecedented manner.

Will this work? In a few races here and there, it will probably save the hide of some Democratic incumbents. One of the consequences of party primaries is that occasionally they can produce candidates who are simply too far outside the mainstream. But, on balance, this is only going to mitigate what will be serious losses. There are two big reasons:

a. Mainstream Democrats see mainstream Republicans as extremists, and vice-versa. The problem that the Democrats have this year, however, is that the battle for the House is largely going to be fought in Republican-leaning neighborhoods. After all, George W. Bush - that neo-con arch-extremist! - still managed to beat John Kerry in 255 congressional districts. So, Democrats are going to label some Republicans as extremists who are not so in the eyes of their conservative-leaning electorates.

b. It can be difficult to tag challengers as extremists. How do you find the smoking gun? Barring some ridiculous comment, it's hard. The best Republican challengers will usually be state legislators or leaders in the local business community. State government usually does not deal with issues that force true extremists to out themselves as such, and extremism is just plain bad for private business.

This is why Barack Obama was able to skate past the kind of treatment that John Kerry received. Though they are both probably equally liberal, Kerry had a twenty-year congressional record that the GOP could comb through to find evidence that he was outside the mainstream. Obama, on the other hand, had a four-year record, two of which he was actively campaigning for the White House and the other two he was preparing to. There was very little there. In 2008, vagueness was the ally of the Democrats. In 2010, it will be the ally of the Republicans.

Beyond the issue of extremism, what will matter above all else is how much money these Republican challengers raise. Money raised is probably the best metric of candidate quality, and we can put down the following marker: Democratic incumbents in conservative leaning districts with challengers who raise close to or more than $1 million will have an enormous challenge on their hands. I would not be surprised to see some Republicans who raise quite a bit less than $1 million still manage to defeat their Democratic opponents.

***

Right now, we can conclude that most voters in most House districts have answered Questions 1 and 2 in the affirmative. That's what most of the polls - national and statewide - have indicated pretty clearly, so it is not hard to extend that to House districts.

But the campaign for the House has not yet begun in earnest, which means that Questions 3 and 4 have yet to be answered, and we probably will not have a solid grasp of the public's answers until the leaves are falling from the trees.

If history is any guide, voters in at least two-dozen districts will agree that their local Democratic candidate is "part of the problem" and that the Republicans have fielded at least a slightly better alternative. But the Republicans need at least 40 districts to make a change. Will that happen?

That remains to be seen, and that's not a trite equivocation. Congressional elections are a strange brew of national and local forces, which means that each is a unique world unto itself. The national forces have sorted themselves out pretty well, but strong Democratic performances on the local level could very well result in the party holding its House majority, albeit it by a slim margin.

The best case scenario for Democrats at this point is a nominal majority where the median member is not a terribly reliable ally of the party's liberal leadership. Something similar is set to occur in the Senate, where a Republican gain of at least five seats will push the filibuster to more conservative ground, from Brown/Collins/Snowe to Alexander/Cochran/Murkowski. Barack Obama ran for and won the Presidency in 2008 based upon a pledge to pursue bipartisanship, and the results in 2010 are effectively going to force him to do just that, at long last.

-Jay Cost