About this Blog

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> 2010 Congressional Election - The House

Health Care Reform Has Endangered the Democratic Majority

This Politico piece by Jim VandeHei, Alex Isenstadt, and Mike Allen got a lot of play last week:

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover -- or that anything resembling the White House's promise of a "recovery summer" is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe -- such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 -- are in real trouble.

There is no mention of health care reform in this piece. The economy is referenced several times. So is the President's inability to control the narrative. Even the Ground Zero Mosque is mentioned as a reason why the House is now in jeopardy. But not health care.

It has become conventional wisdom that the decline of the Democrats has mostly to do with the economy and little - if anything - to do with health care. This is Jonathan Alter from Saturday:

Health-care reform was seen by many cable chatterers as shaping the outcome of the November midterm elections but almost certainly won't. Nor will the flap over the planned mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero. To make sure, Obama defended the constitutional principle at stake, but backed off on the specific siting. Why get tied down by another hot-button distraction, especially one that keeps the Muslim story alive in ways that help no one but the media? The collapse of the Greek economy, by contrast, is an example of something real, not hyped by cable news, whose reverberations first spoiled Obama's PR plan for a "Recovery Summer" and now could sink the Democrats in the midterms.

So, Greek economy, yes. Health care...no?

This meme is wrong. The Democrats' control of the House did not become tenuous recently. At best, some of the more immediate warning signs - e.g. individual incumbents like Betty Sutton now appear to be in jeopardy - have manifested themselves recently. But there has been a real danger of losing the House for some time, a danger that predates "Recovery Summer" and goes back to the health care debate.

First of all, the fact that the health care bill is no longer the topic du jore does not mean it is no longer an issue. The real questions are whether the health care bill moved voters away from the Democrats, and whether those voters have since moved back now that the debate is over. The answers are yes - the debate moved voters away from the Democrats; and no - the voters have not come back.

Here is the 2009-2010 track of the RCP generic ballot average:

Generic Ballot.jpg

This metric historically has a Democratic tilt, yet it showed the two parties at parity a year ago. That was, you will recall, after Democratic incumbents were excoriated at town hall meetings all summer. Only about 40% of people supported the bill at that point. With the President's late summer speech to Congress, the Democratic generic ballot numbers ticked up, but the GOP pulled back to within even of the Democrats by mid-November, when the House was debating the bill.

All of this happened during the Third and Fourth Quarters of 2009, when GDP finally turned positive then jumped up by 5.0%.

It is very hard to win the House of Representatives when you lose the House popular vote. And the polls have suggested for a year that Democrats were in danger of doing just that.

It is also very hard to win the House of Representatives when Independents bolt to the other side en masse. Republicans and Democrats split Independents in the 2004 House elections. In 2006 they went for the Democrats by 18 points. They went for the Democrats by 8 points in 2008.

In Gallup's most recent polling, President Obama won the approval of just 40% of Independent adults. That's deep in the danger zone, and the President has been in trouble with Independents for some time. Independent adults have given him less than 50% approval in the Gallup poll since November, 2009. Again, that's when the economy was growing and the health care debate was on the front page. And that is among all adults. Among likely voters, Rasmussen found around that time that 60% of Independents disapproved of the President's performance, with 45% strongly disapproving.

We can also point to the 2009 off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, which occurred during the health care debate. Democrats suffered massive defections among Independent voters, bringing Republicans to victory in both states. Something similar happened in the Massachusetts Senate election. Republicans do not win New England Senate seats by bringing the conservative base out to the polls! Scott Brown is a United States Senator today because Independents in the Bay State were unhappy with the course the national government had been taking.

Partisans on both sides tell themselves stories about why they're up, why they're down, and why the other side is where it is. These stories usually contain at least a grain of truth, but they also help encourage ideologues in the face of an impending rejection by the electorate. Democrats ignored the political problem of health care in the fall and winter - arguing that Martha Coakley and Creigh Deeds were bad candidates, that voters had been turned off by the health care bill because of the process, and that they would come around once the many benefits kicked in. Now, they're pointing to the economy as the only significant reason why the party is in trouble.

It would be difficult for any strong partisan to admit that such an accomplishment was so deeply unpopular. Yet the polling is pretty unequivocal on the relationship between the Democrats' fortunes and the health care bill. It was during the health care debate that the essential building block of the Democratic majority - Independent voters - began to crumble. It was evident in the generic ballot. It was evident in the President's job approval numbers. It was evident in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Reconstructing the Democrats' meme, we can fairly say that the economy is a huge problem for the party. Of this, there can be no doubt. We can also say that the stalled recovery denied the Democrats a chance to win back the voters they lost over health care. But the process and passage of health care reform were crucial elements in the story. That's when the party started losing the voters it needs to retain control of the government.

-Jay Cost

Will Money Save the Democrats?

Reid Wilson, our former colleague and now the editor-in-chief of the Hotline On Call, had an interesting column today explaining "why Democrats will keep the House."

He offers four reasons.

(1) Democrats have so far raised more money.

(2) Money facilitates turnout.

(3) Money facilitates opposition research.

(4) Democratic voters will come home, as they did in PA-12.

Each of these points has some validity, but in each one Wilson is over-stating his case. Let's take them in turn.

(1) Democrats have more money. Wilson is pointing to an advantage that the Democrats have, but he has mis-framed it. In The Politics of Congressional Elections, Gary Jacobson writes:

Campaign spending is subject to diminishing returns; the more dollars spent, the less gained by each additional dollar. Congressional incumbents usually exploit their official resources for reaching constituents so thoroughly that the additional increment of information about their virtues put forth during the campaign adds comparatively little to what is already known and felt about them...the extent to which voters know and like the incumbents is unrelated to how much is spent on the campaign. The situation is quite different for nonincumbents. Most are largely unknown before the campaign, and the extent to which they penetrate the awareness of voters - which is crucial to winning votes - is directly related to how extensively they campaign. The money spent on nonincumbents' campaigns buys the attention and recognition that incumbents already enjoy at the outset of the campaign

This is a crucially important point, for it suggests that Wilson incorrectly frames the effect of money. What matters is not so much the dollar advantage Democratic incumbents have over Republican challengers, but whether Republican challengers will have raised enough to "penetrate the awareness of voters." That remains to be seen.

Also, expect the Democratic money advantage to be diminished somewhat as business PACs and others primarily concerned about access in the 112th Congress begin shifting dollars to the Republicans. Additionally, expect enthusiastic Republican donors to start identifying the most promising candidates over the next few months. The Democrats enjoyed a similar uptick in their fortunes in 2006. That is inevitable as a party appears headed to transition from minority to majority.

(2) Money facilitates turnout. I think that turnout operations add less value than party insiders like to claim. Mostly, they contact voters who were already going to vote. All that money for turnout might have been useful in New York City in the 1870s when Tammany Hall could get you to vote by offering you a job. But nowadays the parties cannot do anything like that. Ultimately, you vote for purposive reasons, i.e. because you want a better world. The parties can help influence you on that count, but their effectiveness is overstated by insiders and pundits generally, and by Wilson in this instance.

Additionally, we're talking here about the marginal turnout effect of the dollars that the Democrats have raised, but Republicans have not. Is that really going to make a difference between majority and minority status?

Final point: Republicans appear by every metric to be much more enthusiastic than Democrats. Does the GOP really need to spend as much as the Democrats on turnout this cycle? I'd say no, and that instead they can direct their resources to persuading Independent voters - who usually swing elections and who are currently R +11 in the Gallup generic ballot (compared to D+18 on Election Day, 2006). I disagree with the conventional wisdom that midterms are "base elections." Like all elections, they hinge on the unaffiliated vote.

(3) Money facilitates opposition research. Easily the weakest point in the piece, Wilson writes: "If Democrats spend the money early to portray Republicans as unacceptable alternatives, and to frame races as contests they can control, they will be using their monetary advantages to the fullest." Will this sink the occasional Republican candidate? Of course. Will it be sufficient to stem a Republican tide? Of course not.

(4) Democratic voters will come home, as they did in PA-12. If PA-12 was the average congressional district, Republicans would have little chance of taking the House. However, a few salient points about that race:

(a) Democratic registration vastly outpaces Republican registration in the district, meaning that there were more Democrats who could come home.

(b) 255 congressional districts voted for George W. Bush in 2004, but PA-12 was not one of them.

(c) The special election was held on the same day as the Democratic primary battle between Sestak and Specter, meaning that Democrats had a larger draw at the top of the ticket.

(d) The Democrat, Mark Critz, ran an outsider campaign that distanced himself from the controversial votes of the 111th Congress.

Put simply, extrapolation from PA-12 is hard to do.

Wilson's first three points are essentially reducible to the incumbency advantage, which is a real thing that can and will aid the Democratic party in November. But he has overstated or misidentified its importance.

Would these factors be sufficient to stop the Republicans from taking the House in a more evenly divided year? I'd say yes. I think the Democratic incumbency advantage is sufficient to absorb a modest Republican popular vote victory. I'd add that Republicans who do not raise enough money will not win elections, even in a cycle such as this.

But so far this year the Republicans have enjoyed a sizable and sustained lead in the generic ballot, something that has never happened in the history of the poll. Currently, the GOP lead is at 4.5%. If that holds through November, the Democratic money advantage will not be enough to alter the orientation of the electorate sufficiently: if the RCP average has the GOP up 5 points in the generic ballot the day before, the GOP should have around a 5 point advantage on Election Day.

Nor will Democratic money be sufficient to reorganize such a pro-Republican electorate in a way that enough Democrats survive. No party has held a House majority while losing the popular vote by 5 points since before the Civil War. With the "Solid South" - voting overwhelmingly Democratic with exceedingly low turnout - a thing of the past, such a feat is all but impossible. A $20 million cash advantage for the DCCC is not going to change that.

-Jay Cost

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.


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.


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

Is PA-12 a Bellwether?

Politico's Jonathan Martin and Charles Mahtesian write this about the special election in PA-12:

All the evidence pointing to monster Republican House gains this fall--the Scott Brown upset win in Massachusetts, the scary polling numbers in once-safely Democratic districts, the ever-rising number of Democratic seats thought to be in jeopardy--was contradicted Tuesday.

In the only House race that really mattered to both parties--the special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th District--Republicans failed spectacularly, losing on a level playing field where, in this favorable environment, they should have run roughshod over the opposition.

Martin and Mahtesian make some valid points, but they are massively overstating their case. The details of last night's special election don't support the bellwether argument as these two have constructed it.

Let's begin with the political demography of the district. In 2004, George W. Bush won 255 congressional districts. PA-12 was not one of them. From 1994 to 2006, the Republicans held the United States House of Representatives, controlling as many as 232 seats. PA-12 was never one of them. In fact, the Republican-dominated Pennsylvania legislature created a heavily Democratic 12th district in 2002 by moving conservative voters around to generate the Republican-leaning 18th district (currently held by Republican Tim Murphy).

Like many districts in this region, PA-12 went strongly against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. The following chart has the details on Obama's 10 worst Appalachian districts.

Obama Appalachia.jpg

There's PA-12 in the #7 spot. Obama pulled in just 27% of the vote during the primary.

Two features stand out from this chart.

First, PA-12 had the second-highest number of primary participants, behind only OH-6. This is important because the Pennsylvania presidential primary was closed; one had to be a registered Democrat to vote. This means that there are a lot of Democrats in PA-12. These Democrats are pretty well unionized. After all, this is the district that includes a place named Uniontown! Unionized Democrats in a special election are a force to be reckoned with, to say the least.

Second, even though they did not particularly care for Obama when he faced off against Hillary Clinton, the residents of PA-12 swung behind him reasonably well in the general election. Obama did better in the PA-12 general than he did in any of these other districts. This means that these self-identified Democrats still actually vote Democratic there. That's in contrast to states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where people who call themselves Democrats have been behaving like Republicans in the last 15 years.

This is a hugely important point to bear in mind. My back-of-the-envelope calculation of the party turnout in last night's election indicates that a whopping 62% of the voters were Democratic, just 34% Republican, and a measly 4% were Independent or had a third party affiliation. If you give Republican Burns 90% of the Republican vote and 60% of the Independent vote, that means Burns won about one in five Democrats. That's a very decent haul, but it is just not enough in a district where there are so many Democrats coming out to vote.

[Sean Trende had a typically smart piece about the political makeup of PA-12 yesterday. I encourage you to read the whole thing.]

And let's not forget the Pennsylvania Senate primary. As I watched Sestak rise in the polls, and saw the flood of Senate primary advertising here in Western Pennsylvania, I knew that Mark Critz - the Democratic candidate in PA-12 - was being helped. The Sestak-Specter contest was driving up interest, and both candidates were putting out pro-Democratic messages. Both factors were good for Critz. It's difficult to quantify, but this purchased him some votes.

So, we had a political-demographic tilt of this district toward the Democrats that was enhanced by the high-profile Senate race and a presumably substantial union GOTV effort. We also had what amounted to two anti-Obama candidates in the race. If you didn't know that Mark Critz was a Democrat, his advertising would not have clarified matters for you. He ran as a pro-gun, pro-life, anti-health care reform, anti-cap-and-trade Democrat - or, as the lefty blogosphere likes to call them, a reviled "ConservaDem." Basically, he ran as a Truman Democrat, not as an Obama/Pelosi Democrat. What's more, the DCCC spent thousands on advertising that blasted Republican Tim Burns for his "support" of the Fair Tax, an idea that only the Democratic leadership is seriously considering at the moment. Most Democratic incumbents are standing for reelection, which means they will have to defend their voting records. Critz was not so burdened.

I appreciate that Democrats want to breathe a sigh of relief because of last night. And they should, to some extent. The fact that the GOP did not win this special election is evidence that 2010 is not going to be some 1938-style tsunami where the majority party sheds 90 seats. If the Massachusetts Senate race tantalized Republicans with the idea of boundless political opportunities, the PA-12 special election should remind them to keep their imaginations in check. But Martin and Mahtesian need a reality check, too. They are arguing way beyond the facts to suggest that the district had a "level playing field," that it "couldn't have been more primed for a Republican victory," and that "the outcome casts serious doubt on the idea that the Democratic House majority is in jeopardy."

Still, Republicans should be disappointed. I wrote recently that Republicans need to do well in Appalachian and Ohio River Valley districts to win in November. To do that, they must rebrand local Democrats as members of the Obama-Pelosi version of the Democratic Party. They didn't do a very good job of executing this strategy in PA-12, and they need to learn from their mistakes as they go on to compete in districts whose macro features are more favorable to them.

Yet that doesn't change the bottom line, which is this. The political demographics, the effect of the Senate primary, and the anti-Obama/Pelosi tone of the Democratic candidate were all uniquely favorable to the Democrats last night. Control of the House of Representatives is going to turn on districts that are much less Democratic than PA-12, on a day when the net effect of television advertising is not so heavily tilted toward the Democratic Party, and on the fate of incumbent Democrats who cannot so easily hide from their national leaders.

And let's not forget the view from 30,000 feet. Last night we saw two Democratic incumbent senators - Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter - mired in the mid-40s in their primaries. In PA-12, we find a candidate who positioned himself as an old time Democrat winning 53% of the vote in a union district where 62% of the voters were registered Democrats. How does this "contradict" "all the evidence" of a very good Republican year?

-Jay Cost

No, This Isn't an "Anti-Incumbent" Year

The White House is looking to push a storyline about the November elections - and for a job like that, there's nobody better suited than Obama water-carrier extraordinaire, Richard Wolffe:

Voters are lashing out at incumbents of both parties--which comes as a comfort to a White House braced for a Republican tidal wave this fall. And the president's political operatives aren't missing the chance to play up that message as they head into the biggest primaries of the midterm season thus far this Tuesday....

Inside the White House, Obama's advisers see a similar dynamic across the country.

"I think a lot of it is going to be hand-to-hand combat," said the senior Obama aide. "It's a weird environment. The real divide isn't between Republicans and Democrats. It's America and Washington. This is a continuation of the last election. But as the party in power, we are more vulnerable."

Dan Balz and Chris Cilizza equate the Specter/Obama debacle to Grayson/McConnell:

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) could be the next incumbent to fall, but by late Tuesday night, everyone from President Obama to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could feel the sting of voter anger that has shaped the election climate and that could produce a dramatic upheaval in Congress by November.

Ok. So, the idea is that the public mood is anti-incumbent in general, which means we should expect lots of "hand-to-hand" combat between Democrat and Republican candidates as they try to position themselves as being the most anti-Washington.

No. This is totally wrong.

It is a false equivalency being pushed because Arlen Specter is probably going to lose today. If that happens, Snarlin' Arlen will make the fourth high-profile pol that Barack Obama embraced in friendship who was later rebuked by the voters of a blue or purple state. Deeds, Corzine, Coakley, Specter. The White House doesn't want this "narrative" to get out - so they're pushing this alternative instead.

This isn't about dissatisfaction with the performance of the 44th President. Oh no. This is about demanding change in Washington - the very same change, by gum, that Barack Obama has been working so hard to bring about!

"Change that you can believe in" has gone from an over-worked campaign slogan to an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Vote for a Dem, you support the President's agenda for change. Vote for a GOPer, you support the President's agenda for change.

But how many Republican incumbents are in severe jeopardy of losing their seat in Congress to a Democratic challenger?

I count one: Joseph Cao of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, I count more than 20 Democrats in the House and Senate who are in severe jeopardy. Lower the threshold from "severe" to "serious" jeopardy, and I count maybe four Republicans and more than 50 Democrats.

The White House is absolutely, positively correct that there is a divide between America and Washington - but what they fail to appreciate (or, more likely, they appreciate it but want to fake-out the press) is that Washington, D.C. now belongs to Barack Obama.

Just as the student radicals of the 1960s became the tenured faculty of the 2000s, so the worm has turned in the District of Columbia. The gates have been crashed and the one-time insurgents are now comfortably ensconced as the establishment. And with the health care bill, Mr. Obama and his band of former rebels have enacted an extremely unpopular law that they cannot possibly blame on the old guard. George W. Bush may have "forced" Barack Obama's hand on the stimulus, but Dubya had nary a thing to do with the health care bill.

This is why President Obama was wrong to equate the election of Scott Brown to his own victory, and why he's wrong to push this story now. He is the ultimate insider now. That snappy "Hail to the Chief" he hears every time he walks into a room should be sign enough of this fact.

The White House likely knows this. They just don't want us talking about how Obama can't save a single high-profile candidate from a purple or blue state. They don't want us to realize that his coattails have been torn and frayed by the choices he's made in the last 17 months.

No doubt that Republican incumbents are being rebuked across the country by their primary constituencies. But it's all about who is closer to the establishment, which is currently commanded by a Democratic President whose job approval rating has been under 50% in the RCP average for five months. In this situation, challenger trumps incumbent, but Republican trumps Democrat. Republican challengers are farther than Republican incumbents from the establishment, so the latter better look out in the primaries. But in general elections, the dynamic will be very different. Republican challengers and incumbents will tar their Democratic opponents with a simple characterization: "A vote for my opponent is a vote for Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi's agenda." Democrats will have no such claim to make against Republicans.

This "anti-incumbent" meme is just a smokescreen designed to get the White House through some tough news cycles.

-Jay Cost

Thunder on the Mountain

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be

Mean old twister bearing down on me

All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town

Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down
-Bob Dylan

The American people have only a limited role in the United States government. They must choose representatives to govern for them, rather than govern directly. They have just two political parties from which to choose. And if a representative from one district votes for a bill that affects another, the people in the other district cannot do a thing about it.

Oftentimes, one can't help but wonder if the practical power of the people is even slighter. American elections too often have low turnout. They are too frequently determined by the campaign for dollars, as candidates raise money to subsidize the unctuous propaganda that fills the airwaves prior to Election Day. Elections often do a poor job of booting the bad characters from government. The whole ugly process of electoral politics rarely seems to attract the best of the citizenry. A visit to Washington, D.C. can prompt the cynical question, "Who runs this place? Because it sure as hell doesn't seem like it's the people..."

And yet for all this, the people do indeed rule. While their power is limited, it is nevertheless unconditional where it exists. Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi need the assent of the people of the United States to govern this country. But the people don't need any such thing. In the limited sphere where they rule, they are supreme.

This is easy to forget because it is rare to see the people actually wield their power in its full force. Between 1954 and 1994, the Democrats controlled the House, whether they deserved to or not. The Republicans controlled it from 1994 to 2006, again regardless of merit. The Senate has usually been just as static. Turnover in the presidency has also been fairly uneventful. Only once in the last century have the people ejected from the White House a party it had installed just four years prior (that dubious distinction goes to Jimmy Carter and the Democrats, who were promoted to the White House in 1976 then quickly demoted in 1980).

This kind of stability can give the impression that the people do not rule. We so rarely see the full force of their power that it is easy to think that the real bossess are the decades-long denizens of the prestige committees, the high-powered lobbyists, the king-makers in both party establishments, or the plugged-in Beltway journalists. We see them all the time, preening about their power and influence. They seem like they're really in charge.

But they're not. D.C. might shine brilliantly to the eyes of some, but it is still just reflected light. For all their posturing, the establishment still works at the pleasure of the people. It just so happens that the people usually choose to renew their tenure.

Yet this year, it looks like the people are set to deliver a historic rebuke to the establishment. The portents of the coming reprimand are all around us. Consider:

-Arlen Specter was effectively booted from the Republican Party nearly a year before the primary election. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the Republican electorate in Pennsylvania had become too conservative. This tendentious interpretation has been exploded by the fact that he's about to be ejected from the Democratic side, too.

-Scott Brown came out of nowhere to defeat Martha Coakley in the election to replace Senator Ted Kennedy.

-Former Senator Dan Coats couldn't even get 40% of the vote in the Indiana primary. Most of the vote was split between Marlin Stutzman and John Hostettler, who combined had raised just $315k by April 14.

-In Indiana's 9th Congressional District, frequent candidate, former representative and party favorite Mike Sodrel finished in third place. In Indiana's 5th District, Republican incumbent Dan Burton scored just 30% of the primary vote.

-Charlie Crist has been forced to exit the Republican primary in Florida because of Marco Rubio's surge. He is currently leading in opinion polls, but the lead is completely illusory. Right now, he's winning over 40% of the Democratic vote (more than the presumptive Democratic nominee, Kendrick Meeks) as well as nearly 25% of the African-American vote. Those numbers are unsustainable.

-Three-term Senator Bob Bennett has been booted from his seat by the Republican Party of Utah.

This is the thunder on the mountain, the early warning that something bad is about to blow through the District of Columbia. I don't think there's anything anybody there can do about it. The people have a limited role in this government - but where the people do possess power, they are like a force of nature. They cannot be stopped.

That's bad news for the establishment this year. They're going to wake up on the morning of November 3rd and be reminded of who is actually in charge of this country.

Democrats will be hit much, much harder than Republicans. Even so, it would be a huge mistake to interpret the coming rebuke through a strictly ideological or partisan lens. Yet predictably, that's what many will do. Republicans will see this as a historic rejection of Barack Obama's liberalism, just as they saw the 1994 revolution as a censure of Bill Clinton, and just as Democrats saw 2006 and 2008 as admonishments of George W. Bush's foreign policy. These interpretations are only half right. When the people are angry at the way the government is being managed, and they are casting about for change, their only option is the minority party. The partisans of the minority are quick to interpret this as their holy invitation to the promised land, but that's not what it really is about. They were only given the promotion because the people had no other choice.

The entire political class needs to understand that the coming events transcend ideology and partisanship. The electoral wave of 2010 will have been preceded by the waves of 2006 and 2008. That will make three electoral waves in a row, affecting both parties and conservative and liberal politicians alike. The American people are sending the establishment a message: we're angry at the way you are running our government; fix it or you'll be next to go.

-Jay Cost

Predicting the 2010 Midterm Election Results

Everybody wants to know what will happen in November. Here's my take:

I don't really know.

Predicting congressional midterms is a severely problematic task. It's beset with many difficulties, few of which are regularly discussed in popular commentary. Yet I've grown increasingly aware of them in recent years, and I find them to be utterly stultifying.

This article will lay out what I see as the biggest problems in trying to predict what will happen.

First, and most important, there are few observations. Since the end of World War II, there have been only 16 midterm elections. This is a major empirical problem. Expectations for future events must be built on past experiences. That's just common sense. The fewer past experiences you have, the less precise your prediction can be.

Second, congressional midterm elections have a very irregular pattern. The following chart tracks the share of House seats the party of the President has lost since 1946.

Midterm Losses.jpg

More than half of the elections are pretty uneventful. The party of the President has lost 10% or less of its House seats in 9 of the 16 midterms. That would be akin to Democratic losses of 26 or fewer seats this November, which I think most people would identify as a Republican underperformance.

So, if we think that the Republicans are going to make big gains, and we want to know how big - we only have about seven helpful elections.

But take a closer look at those seven elections. They are 1946, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1994, and 2006. This is a problematic list, and it points to the third problem. Election results necessarily depend on the social, economic, and political context of the day. As the context changes, so also will the results. Many contextual changes in American politics might have had a systematic influence on House elections. Here are eight notable possibilities:

-The party coalitions have flipped. In 1946, the Republicans were a Northern-based party and the Democrats a Southern-based one. Today, it is exactly the opposite.

-In 1946, about 12% of voting-age blacks were registered to vote. By 1970, that number had climbed to 67%. In response, politicians have put black voters in minority-majority congressional districts, which did not exist for the early elections.

- Salient issues have changed completely. Dominant issues in 1946 included labor union strikes and the emerging Soviet threat. How relevant can that be for understanding 2010?

-The contemporary congressional campaign is totally different. Nowadays, we have candidate-centered contests dominated by consultants, television advertisements, and the need to raise at least $1 million. This is a relatively recent phenomenon.

-There has been increasing party polarization. In the 1950s through 1970s, scholars thought the electorate was in the midst of a "dealignment." For example, the electorate of the past was much more likely to split its vote between the parties than the electorate of today. Also, congressional parties of the past were substantially more moderate than the contemporary ones.

-Today, gerrymandering is the one true political science. Politicians use computer-generated models to go precinct-by-precinct to find the right mix of voters to help their party win as many districts as possible. Such precision did not exist in the 1940s.

-For decades after the Great Depression, the Roosevelt coalition was broad enough that the Republicans generally could not win a House majority, even in good years. In particular, it was the "Solid South" that kept the Republicans at a ceiling of about 190 seats. This phenomenon lasted until the 1990s when the Republicans finally achieved parity south of the Mason-Dixon Line. For the first time since Reconstruction, both parties are now truly able to compete in every region of the country.

-It was not until the Warren Court decisions of the 1960s that states had to draw congressional districts according to the maxim of "one man, one vote."

Congressional elections depend not just on the national vote, but how that vote is distributed across the 435 congressional districts. Each of these eight factors could have influenced the vote or its distribution, and several could have influenced both. So, color me skeptical of any model (statistical or otherwise) that uses elections like 1946, 1958 or 1966 to predict the outcome in 2010. There are just too many changes in context for those elections to be terribly useful.

As if all this is not enough, there's a fourth problem. Three of the four recent big midterm elections - 1974, 1982, and 1994 - are extraordinary:

-The midterm of 1974 is far too unique to be of much use. Richard Nixon had resigned in August of that year and Gerald Ford had pardoned him in September. Any attempts to compare 1974 to 2010 are thus highly problematic.

-The midterm of 1982 saw the Republicans lose about 13% of their House caucus. At the time analysts were surprised; they expected the GOP to lose much more. Ronald Reagan's net job approval rating was at -6% by Election Day. The unemployment rate was at 10.8%. The Republicans had as many seats in 1982 as they did in 1974, yet they lost half as many in the midterm.

-The midterm of 1994 was surprising for opposite reasons. Bill Clinton's net job approval was at +1% on Election Day. By November, the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.6%, it's lowest point in more than four years. Virtually nobody expected a Republican takeover of Congress, let alone a takeover with so many seats to spare.

The 1994 midterm ended up scrambling most of the models at the time. Predictions were actually quite wide of the mark. A few years later, John Coleman of the University of Wisconsin would take to the pages of the Journal of Politics to ask if Republicans enjoyed some kind of systematic advantage in midterm elections. He wrote:

Few observers expected the massive Democratic defeat in the 1994 House election. In 1982 observers were surprised by how few seats the Republicans lost. These two examples suggest the possibility of a wider phenomenon: Republicans are relatively advantaged in midterm elections... These contrasting party fates may be related to different expectations voters bring to Republican and Democratic presidencies. Bringing party into midterm forecasting shows that the 54 seats lost in 1994 were not surprising for the Democrats, but under similar conditions the Republicans would lose only about 20 seats.

Coleman's argument has theoretical merit, but it runs into the same data problem as we've been discussing: too few observations for really solid testing. What I find most interesting about this assertion is that, after the waves of 1974, 1982, and 1994, electoral prognosticators were not sharpening their models, but revisiting core assumptions!

To summarize, here is where we are. In the last sixty years there have been only a handful of midterm elections, and even fewer can be considered waves. The midterms before the 1970s were so different in terms of context it's hard to derive much useful information from them. The midterm of 1974 was the product of a singular event in American history. The midterms of 1982 and 1994 caught everybody off guard. And the midterm of 2006 might not be relevant because the Republicans are different than the Democrats.

So, I don't really know what will happen. Are the Democrats going to lose seats in November? Almost certainly. Are they going to lose "a lot" of seats? Probably - the macro trends generally point in that direction, and we do know enough to get an approximate sense of how things will play out. Is it going to be seat losses in the 20-40 seat range, 40-60 range, or 60+ range? Nobody knows yet.

I understand that people want to see into the future. Lord knows I do. Analysts are already working hard to satisfy this demand by proffering all sorts of arguments. Their assertions are useful - but only to a point. I've come to believe that congressional elections are a poorly understood phenomenon, and I would encourage you to be a cautious consumer of predictive punditry.

-Jay Cost

The Republican Message Writes Itself

The talk among Republicans is that their November message should focus on repealing the new health care bill - or some version of repeal and replace. Meanwhile, other analysts have suggested that Republicans risk over-reaching and appearing too aggressive.

I think this debate is misframed. The Republican message is going to be put together by campaign strategists looking to maximize the number of votes won by their candidates. While there is something to be said for emphasizing repeal, I expect the Republican argument to focus on more visceral, immediate points. Here are the five big arguments we should expect the GOP to emphasize.


1. The Economy. This is the number one issue in every poll. If the labor market continues to be weak, expect Republican candidates to use that to great effect. They'll communicate the information contained in this chart :


Obviously, they won't use this chart - but it's not hard to envision how some GOP ad man will translate the information in this chart into an effective advertisement.

Remember, it's not just that the unemployment rate is elevated. It's that the Obama Administration - and by extension congressional Democrats - over-promised on what the stimulus package would do for it.

2. Medicare. Call it Bob Dole's revenge. The 104th Congress tried to trim the sails of Medicare to preserve its long-run sustainability, and they were hammered by the Democrats for their efforts. This time, Republicans will return the favor - arguing against the hundreds of billions of cuts in Medicare that ObamaCare imposes to fund a new entitlement. Republican candidates will be sure to mention points like this, from CBO:

Under the legislation, CBO expects that Medicare spending would increase significantly more slowly during the next two decades than it has increased during the past decades (per beneficiary, after adjusting for inflation). It is unclear whether such a reduction in the growth rate of spending could be achieved, and if so, whether it would be accomplished through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or through reductions in access to care or the quality of care.

What effect will this have? Consider that in the 2008 presidential election in Virginia, senior citizens made up 11% of the electorate and went for John McCain, 53-46. In the 2009 gubernatorial election, they made up 18% of the electorate and gave Bob McDonnell 60% of the vote.

Gallup finds that seniors right now give Barack Obama just 40% job approval. That's bad news for Democrats.

3. The Deficit. If anybody doubts whether deficits can influence votes, look no further than the case of H. Ross Perot. He made fiscal sustainability a chief plank in his 1992 presidential campaign, and he pulled in a whopping 19% of the vote. That included 30% of the Independent vote.

The deficit is one of those issues that everybody understands. Everybody has to keep some kind of budget, and everybody knows that they can't get away with spending more than twice what they take in. The White House can call this a "new era of responsibility," but it's hard to square the claim with the numbers.

4. Taxes and spending. Combine the billions of new taxes in the health care bill with the $1 trillion from letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the $940 billion price tag of ObamaCare, and the $789 billion stimulus - and you have a simple GOP message: this is the biggest tax and spend government in American history.

Plus, expect Republicans to warn that the unsustainability of the deficit plus Obama's social welfare ambitions can mean only one thing: massive new taxes on the middle class. We could see ads using this clip:

5. Congress. This is one of the most unpopular Congresses in recent history, and Republicans will try to anchor incumbent Democrats to Nancy Pelosi, who is quite unpopular (the latest AP poll had her unfavorables at 51%).

We're going to see a lot of ads like this:

Democratic members already expect this coming. Witness, for instance, the number of members who are defecting on minor procedural matters. For instance, seventeen brave House Democrats voted with the Republicans on the highly controversial resolution yesterday to adjourn the House of Representatives! That includes 10 Democrats who just voted for ObamaCare but who were courageous enough to defy the Speaker's demand to send members home for Easter vacation: Chris Carney, Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth, Jim Himes, Suzanne Kosmas, Harry Mitchell, Scott Murphy, Tom Perriello, Mark Schauer, and Joe Sestak.

Kidding aside, there is no other reason for such a vote than to lower the percentage of agreement with Speaker Pelosi.


These are the tried-and-true issues for Republicans to hit: jobs, Medicare, the deficit, taxes and spending, and Congress. There will be other messages out there, but individually each of these would be very potent. Running on them all in a single election is something else entirely. If the Republicans pick up lots of seats in November, some Republican campaign "guru" will come out of the woodwork to claim credit - but c'mon, the ads write themselves.

The GOP need not and will not focus primarily on the idea of "repeal," which is far too vague. That's not to say that the party shouldn't promise repeal. It's just to say that its rhetorical emphases should - and will - focus on the messages that have been proven over the years to be effective.

Follow me now on Twitter!

-Jay Cost

Five Reasons NY-23 Doesn't Tell Us Anything

Wow. The pundit class is in full swing, interpreting the meaning of NY-23. "What's it say about Obama's administration?" "What's it say about the state of the Republican Party?" "What's it say for the upcoming health care debate?" So many questions. I'll do my best to answer them, each in turn.

Nothing, nothing, and nothing!

I'm sorry to disappoint (I'm not sorry!). I know we're all excited to have a dramatic election to ponder - so I hate to be the party pooper (I relish being the party pooper!). No doubt the twists and turns have been dramatic. But sometimes drama has a deeper meaning - like in Hamlet. And sometimes it doesn't - like in the Young and the Restless.

This is the Young and the Restless. There are few, if any, broader inferences to draw from this race about the national political climate.

Here are five reasons why:

(1) Dede Scozzafava was selected by the Republican Party in an extraordinary way. This should pour a bucket of cold water on the idea that there is some internal revolution happening in the Republican Party. Most Republican nominees have to go through a primary process in which the "base" evaluates candidates. This did not happen, and that created two big problems: (a) a candidate too moderate for the Republican base was chosen (b) in a process that does not have the legitimacy that primary elections have. If Scozzafava had to compete in a primary, she either would have lost (most likely scenario) or, had she won (less likely), she would have been able to claim a legitimacy that she could not claim. Because most party nominees are chosen by primaries, it means you cannot extrapolate from NY-23 to the broader party.

(2) Dede Scozzafava was a TERRIBLE candidate. Her people called the cops on John McCormack. Seriously. She held a press conference in front of Doug Hoffman's campaign office, and enabled the Conservative Party candidate to produce this lovely bit of free publicity:

Scozzafava Hoffman.jpg

Scozzafava didn't drop out only because Hoffman was on the rise. She dropped out because she was running out of money. I wonder why. Suppose you're a donor to Scozzafava. You're a Snowe-Collins-Specter type Republican, convinced that you're the future of the party and so on and so forth. Still, your money is as hard earned as any buck held by a tea-partier. Are you going to give it to this woman? I doubt it. That's what we call chasing good money after bad.

If Dede Scozzafava was a substantially worse candidate than your average Republican nominee in a competitive race - and she clearly was - then we cannot generalize from her fate to the fate of Snowe-Collins-Specter type nominees.

Incidentally, I don't know why pundits are so obsessed with northeastern Republicans. Hasn't anybody noticed how many seats from the South the GOP has picked up in the last 20 years? That seems to me to be an extraordinarily beneficial tradeoff for the Grand Old Party. The Northeast has been shedding seats decade after decade. In the last thirty years, the Mid-Atlantic region has lost 18 seats. And they're going South - Florida and Texas have picked up 18 seats in the last 30 years. If, in 1976, the Ghost of William McKinley (the quintessential Republican) had been offered the following deal: "Decline in the Northeast but rise in the South, or stay the same in both regions"...wouldn't he have taken the swap? Maybe not at first - but after the Ghost of Mark Hanna had told him all about the upcoming demographic changes in both regions - I bet he would!

Relatedly, it seems to me that the Republican Party - being a party that stretches across all regions of the country - should weigh its attention according to population. And, in that kind of analysis, more focus should be dedicated to fielding good candidates in the Midwest and especially the South than in the Northeast. That's where the most potential pickups for the GOP are. So why so much attention given to the Northeast? (Partial answer: Most people encouraging the GOP to focus on the Northeast rarely if ever vote Republican. E.g. David Axelrod's recent advice for how the Republican Party can build a majority. But that's a column for another day!)

(3) New York has long-standing third party options. One purpose of the New York Conservative Party is to act as a check on the Republican Party. Most states do not have this, and if this race had occurred in, say, Pennsylvania - where there is no such third party - Hoffman would not have had the kind of opportunity he found in the Conservative Party.

This makes a big difference. This was a real three-way race because New York has real third parties. Most states don't. Again, this makes it really hard to generalize from NY-23 to the rest of the country.

(4) Turnout could be really, really low. The NY-20 special election had about 160,000 people vote in it. Compare that to the more than 287,000 who voted in the general election in NY-20 in 2008. The special had just 57% of the turnout that the general had. This makes a huge difference.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that turnout in NY-23 will be 57% of what it was in the 2008 general. That would put it at about 125,000, meaning that you'd need 62,501 votes to win a majority. I'll posit that there are this many potential Hoffman votes in the district and this many potential Owens votes, too! What matters is who actually comes out to vote. That's the dominant factor in low-turnout special elections.

This matters to some extent in general elections, but not nearly as much. Accordingly, it is very difficult to generalize from a special election result to the sentiment of the entire district, let alone the country at large!

(5) The 2010 midterms are a year away. I'll make two observations about many of the pundits tut-tutting about NY-23:

(a) They'll admit that a year is a "lifetime" in politics, but this only ever serves as a C/Y/A cliché rather than a fundamental truth that informs their analysis.

(b) They'll have forgotten about NY-23 a year from now.

A year is a long time in American politics. In November, 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency of the United States. A year prior, he was trailing Hillary Clinton badly and under fire from his own supporters for not wasting his money as HRC was. A year before that, few people even knew who he was. In November, 1991 George H.W. Bush's job approval stood at 62%. A year later a folksy governor from Arkansas had unseated him. In November, 1938 Republicans picked up nearly 100 House seats in the midterm election, and FDR looked to be finished. A (little less than a) year later, Germany invaded Poland and the prospect of world war made FDR the center of the political world once again. In November, 1928 Herbert Hoover was elected in the third consecutive Republican landslide in what really looked to be an enduring majority. A year later...well, you get the idea.


So, am I interested in the results of NY-23? You bet I am. But I'm a political junkie, and I find this stuff highly entertaining. That doesn't mean that it carries with it any particular meaning. You can be entertained by Hamlet and Y & R, but only one of them means anything.

Fellow junkies, I implore you: let's see this contest for what it is - simple, meaningless entertainment - and stop pontificating on its broader implications!

Follow me now on Twitter!

-Jay Cost

Obama's Worst Poll Number

Gallup's breakdown of Obama's job approval by age was illuminating.


First off, note Obama's drop-off among young people. Young people were supposed to be a critical component of the new Democratic majority. Granted their approval is still slightly higher than the other groups, but it has far and away been the most volatile, dropping more than any other. This should not come as a huge surprise. Baby Boomers were partial to McGovern in 1972, but swung around to Reagan in the 80s. Young people's political dispositions are still being formed.

Yet, Obama's worst poll number here is actually his share among seniors. I'm guessing it relates to the health care debate. The White House should be very concerned, and for one simple reason: seniors vote.

Here are some empirics on that claim. I looked at states that featured hotly contested midterm Senate elections in 2006. I counted ten: Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia. For each of these, I pulled out the share of the electorate that was 65 and over for President in 2008, Senate in 2006, and President in 2004.


First off, there was not a noticeable drop-off among senior voters from 2004 to 2008. Only Ohio shows a significant change, and it has an increase. About half have a slight increase and half have a slight decrease. That's consistent with national polls, which have seniors contributing 16% of the total electorate in 2004 and 2008.

Second, notice 2006. In seven of the ten states, seniors accounted for a larger share of the electorate during the midterm. In several of them, the differences were substantial. At least in the hotly contested Senate elections, the 2006 electorate was noticeably older. This corresponds with national data as well. The national House exit poll in 2006 found 19% of the electorate was 65 or older, compared to 16% in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

One reason for this might be that there is a lot of stimulation to vote in a presidential election - especially the last two matchups, which were hotly contested - but that stimulation drops off for the midterms. Thus, you're left with an electorate voting more out of habit, rather than being drawn to participate by the excitement of the spectacle. That could give seniors an advantage.

If Obama's numbers with seniors stay in the cellar, this could mean midterm problems next year for the Democrats. The silver lining here for the White House is that most of the drop-off occurred recently, which suggests that Obama might be able to win at least some of these people back. If he can improve his overall standing on the health care issue, he'll probably pick up with seniors.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Strategic Mistake

Presidential mandates are inherently political, as Sean Trende and I argued in January: "Though they are cloaked in the language of democratic theory, they are more a matter of what adroit politicians can claim for themselves in the face of the opposition..."

In a few instances instances, politicians can feasibly claim a mandate to implement a particular policy. The election of 1896 revolved around a clear policy debate, thus implying a policy mandate for McKinley (at least on gold). More often, mandates cannot be linked to actual policies, but to problems like recession. The election of 1932 is an example of this. That's where politics can play a big role. Of course, many elections imply no mandate whatsoever. The election of 1988 is a good example. The vote that year was more an endorsement of the past eight than an indication of what should happen next.

Last year seems to fall into that middle range. There was no crucial policy choice made - nothing like gold over silver - but President Obama can feasibly claim some kind of mandate to get the economy out of recession. I'd base this conclusion on a few data points. The first is the trajectory of the horse race. Gallup showed a dead heat when the Democratic National Convention began - and after the Republican National Convention, McCain jumped out to a modest lead. Then the financial market began to crumble, and that was essentially the end of the campaign:

RCP Average for September.jpg

There was very little change after this. The exit poll indicated that the economy was the decisive factor. A comparison of 2004 to 2008 is instructive.

Top Issues, 2004 and 2008.gif

There was no single issue that dominated in 2004. Voter concerns were distributed evenly around Iraq, terrorism, the economy, and moral values. Additionally, those issues cut in opposite directions: two favored Kerry, two favored Bush. The election of 2008 was different. Voters' concerns centered on the economy - and they broke to Obama by the same rate as the whole country did.

The 2008 election is a typical American response to economic woes. The country has been voting for out-parties during economic slowdowns since 1840, when it tossed Martin van Buren out on his duff. The United States votes for prosperity. It always has. It always will.

That's why I have been so perplexed by the Obama administration's legislative strategy this year. The contrast between the stimulus bill and the health care debate is especially peculiar. It's a strange sight to watch continued gloomy numbers trickle out from the economic pulse-takers on the one hand, and Congress debating a "public option" and fretting over CBO scores on the other.

The following is Keith Hennessy's analysis of the stimulus bill:

The President's mistake was in largely deferring to Congress on the composition of the stimulus bill. Rather than allowing Congress to pump hundreds of billions of dollars through slow-spending and inefficient bureaucracies, the President should have insisted that Congress instead send all the funds directly to the American people and let them spend it quickly and efficiently. Given his policy preferences, he could have directed a large share of those funds to poor people who don't pay income taxes...

The final 2009 stimulus law broke down like this:

10-yr total

% of total

Discretionary spending (highways, mass transit, energy efficiency, broadband, education, state aid)

$308 B


Entitlements (food stamps, unemployment, Medicaid, refundable tax credits)

$267 B


Tax cuts

$212 B



$787 B


The problem is that only 11% of the first line (discretionary spending) will be spent by October 1 of this year. In contrast, 31-32% of the entitlement and tax cuts lines will be out the door by that time. (I have questions about the speed of the entitlement part. The bulk of that is Medicaid spending, and it's not clear to me that a Federal payment to a State means the cash is immediately flowing into the private economy.)

If we extend our window to October 1, 2010, then less than half the discretionary spending will be out the door, while almost 3/4 of the entitlement spending and all of the tax cuts will be out the door and affecting the economy. The largest part of the stimulus law is therefore also the slowest spending part. This is fine if you're trying to increase GDP growth over the next 2-4 years. If you're going for short-term GDP growth, it makes no sense.

What's odd is that when the stimulus bill was under consideration, the President said there was no time for a real debate. Why the need for speed if the bill wouldn't begin to take effect for months? This seemed like a rhetorical trick designed to deflect criticism from what was a questionable bill.

Relatedly, Republican concerns were brushed aside, with the implicit claim that they were rooted in bad faith. The problem with this argument is that the Republican House caucus was unanimously opposed to the bill. Members like Bono Mack, Castle, Kirk, Lance, LoBiondo, McHugh, Reichert, and Smith all voted nay. That's significant. These members voted in favor of Waxman-Markey, so minimally we can conclude that they are open to Democratic ideas. Additionally, Obama tapped McHugh to be Secretary of the Army, so he can't be a Republican hack. There are certainly fewer moderates in the Republican House caucus now than there were in 2005 - but some are still in the lower chamber. The fact that they were unanimously opposed to the bill suggests that perhaps there was something wrong with it.

All in all, the process that produced the stimulus bill was not a good one. Rather than use his enormous political capital to construct a bill designed to confront the economic crisis head-on, the President left its construction mostly up to Congress, which is inclined to particularism and waste. It was then rushed through the legislature without a full review. The opposition to it was painted as politically motivated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the final product was a bill that will not produce much effect until some time in the future - and now some are calling for a second stimulus.

Meanwhile, the President and Congress are moving forward carefully and deliberately on health care. There's a robust debate that includes congressional committees across both chambers, the President, members of both parties, and the public. The President has clearly indicated that this is his top legislative priority, and he intends to do what is necessary to get a good bill that he can sign into law. Over the next few months, Washington's focus will squarely be on health care, even though it sits well below the economy on lists of public concerns.

This seems backwards to me. It's as if the economy was a secondary concern that had to be dealt with quickly so attention could shift to the rest of the President's domestic agenda. Why so much focus on health care and so little focus on the economy? Perhaps it's because Obama - like many Democratic Presidents before him - wants to be the next Franklin Roosevelt. For whatever reason, they seem to dream of getting themselves into the pantheon of leaders who expand the federal government's role in the provision of social welfare. And health care is the white whale of the Democratic Party's social welfare agenda. The President who finally delivers is guaranteed the spot next to the Squire of Hyde Park.

I understand why President Obama might feel this temptation. Democrats see themselves as members of the progressive party, and their leaders are expected to make progress on issues of social welfare. Their overwhelming numbers in the legislature augur well for a bill - so shouldn't Obama and company give it a try? Yet, there are other factors to consider. FDR guided Social Security through Congress in 1935, after he had already dedicated the government to massive relief and recovery efforts, after GDP had stabilized, and after the public had validated his initial efforts in the 1934 midterm. LBJ pushed for the Great Society in the mid-60s, a time of immense prosperity. Expanding social welfare requires a meeting of the man and the moment, which helps explain why some well regarded presidents (Truman and Clinton) failed in their attempts.

This moment is calling for a focus on the economy. That's why Barack Obama has the top job. It's not because of cap-and-trade, not because of health care, not because of his magnetic presence on the campaign trail - but because the economy was shrinking at a 6.1% annualized rate by Election Day. Americans were voting against recession by voting for him. This gives him a claim to a mandate, which not every President enjoys. He now has an opportunity to put his stamp on the country's economic policy in the name of recovery. Yet he's not doing that. He encouraged the Congress to rush through a poorly designed stimulus package that he had little involvement in; now he has focused the legislature's time and attention on health care, which is a secondary concern right now.

I think this is a strategic mistake. My scan of the history of American politics does not indicate that we've been governed so much by "alignments" - the systems of 1860, 1896, 1932, 1968, and so on. Instead, I see a country that votes for growth. That's the true American ideology. Left, right, or middle - the average American wants prosperity. When the majority party fails to deliver growth after having been elected to do so - the electoral consequences can be significant.

-Jay Cost

NY 20: A Referendum on Obama?

That's what TNR's John Judis thinks, and he concludes the tie is good news for the President.

Special elections in the first year of a new president are important because the parties turn them into national referenda. And this election was no exception. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden campaigned for Murphy in the closing weeks; Murphy, who was relatively unknown in the district, based his campaign largely on his support for and Tedesco's opposition to Obama's stimulus plan...

Murphy's election night edge doesn't suggest that the Democrats will romp in 2010. Too many things can happen in the meantime. But if Murphy had lost by a significant margin--say 56 to 44 percent--it would have shown that within a district that Obama carried in 2008, there was a significant undercurrent of discontent with his presidency and his policies. That would have emboldened Obama's opponents.

So, is it?

Answer: not necessarily.

In an article written in 1999 for Legislative Studies Quarterly, Keith Gaddie, Charles Bullock, and Scott Buchanan ask "What is so special about special elections?"

They look at special elections over a 26 year period, 1973 to 1997. They try to predict the outcome of special elections based on six distinct factors:

(a) Presidential job approval
(b) Whether the candidates held previous elective office
(c) How much money each candidate spent
(d) The racial and ethnic composition of the electorate
(e) The normal partisan vote in the district (i.e. the average GOP presidential vote in the last two cycles)
(f) Time

They run the same model for special elections and open seat, regularly scheduled elections - and they find that presidential job approval is not a statistically significant factor in special election outcomes. Generally, they conclude:

In the context of congressional elections in general, special elections are as vulnerable to the constituency characteristics and candidate-specific attributes that structure other open-seat outcomes. In that respect, then, special-election outcomes that change partisan control can be viewed as the product of normal electoral circumstances and not referenda on the administration.

This conclusion is similar to the one that Frank Feigert and Pippa Norris draw in their 1990 study of special elections (also in LSQ) in the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Australia. Like Gaddie et al., they infer that candidate-specific factors are more in play.

Now, this doesn't mean we can draw a firm and final conclusion. There are reasons why presidential job approval might not have been a factor in the Gaddie/Bullock/Buchanan model but actually mattered in NY-20. The insignificance of presidential job approval in their model might be a statistical blip. Additionally, special elections have not received much scholarly study - so our conclusions must remain tentative. Also, the nature of these special elections might have changed since 1997, making them more "national" and a kind of referendum on the President. This election in particular might have been a referendum because of the salience of national news at this point (the bank bailout, the recession, etc).

However, these findings should give us pause before we go along with Judis's conclusion. There is evidence that special elections, while generally mimicking the factors that influence open seat contests, are not referenda on the President.

-Jay Cost

The Fight Over the Economy Is Just Beginning

In my recent discussion with Ruy Teixeira, I argued that true ideologues constitute a relatively small percentage of the public. But that is not to say that the broad middle of the nation does not have a core set of values that guides its political decisions. Among other things, it believes firmly in the idea of economic growth, and it isn't hesitant to punish politicians for weak economies.

The relationship between the electorate and the politicians is akin to Darth Vader and his lieutenants in The Empire Strikes Back. When the underlings failed Vader, he impatiently struck them down without a second thought, moving on to the next in command. Similarly, when politicians fail to deliver growth, the judgment of the electorate is just as swift and almost as brutal.

A Gallup poll conducted in 1999 found that 71% of the country approved of George H.W. Bush's job as president. Yet Mr. Bush had the misfortune of presiding over a downswing in the business cycle. Though the economy had been growing for six straight quarters by Election Day, unemployment was above 7%. He won just 37% of the vote. That 1990/91 recession also hurt his successor. In the early Clinton years, the economy grew and unemployment fell, but growth in real per capita income was slow to rebound. By the midterm, just 43% of voters approved of Clinton's handling of the economy, and the Democrats lost 52 House seats.

How's that for brutality? One (relatively mild) recession, and the public delivers harsh punishments to both parties years after growth returned. "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

There are three lessons for today's politics. First, the country is impatient about growth. Recessions are virtually immoral in this country - and if growth is slow to return, or if its effects are slow to be felt by the average voter, the public will not take it lightly. The top line GDP number is not enough. If other indicators - like unemployment and real income, metrics that speak to how people are experiencing the economy - are still weak, the public's response can be just as wrathful.

Second, the public's diagnosis of the economic problem need not be enlightened. Imagine you lost your keys on a dark street. You'll look for them under the nearest streetlight - not because that's where they are, but because that's where you can see. That's how the electorate makes judgments about complicated subjects like the economy. It focuses on what it understands, whether or not that gets to the real issues. Recall the political damage George H.W. Bush suffered because he hadn't seen a price scanner before. Somehow, this meant he was out of touch, and thus not suited to bring the economy to recovery.

Third, Walter Shaprio recently suggested that Republicans will not gain from any populist backlash. I wouldn't be so sure. Out parties can make substantial, recession-related midterm gains despite having been led by unpopular presidents. Perhaps the best example is 1938. Amidst the "Roosevelt Recession," the country turned to the party of the reviled Herbert Hoover, who still had a negative rating in 1944. FDR's majority in the subsequent Congress depended entirely upon the old Confederacy - meaning that the GOP was the country's first choice outside the one-party South.

This links into the second point. The public lacks economic expertise, yet it must still assign blame for the struggling economy. It is unsurprising that - regardless of whether he deserves it - the President is often the recipient. After all, he is the most visible politician in the country. Additionally, Presidents are quick to accept credit for a flourishing economy, so inevitably they take the blame for when it languishes. When you blame the President and want a change, the opposition party is the only viable option.

While the current focus on Timothy Geithner, the Treasury, and the financial markets is understandable - this will probably not be the script of the broader political battle over the next 20 months. Assuming that the financial system is brought under control, the political debate will focus relentlessly on recession and recovery. Though the Administration, the CBO and the Blue Chip forecasters project modest growth in 2010 (ranging from 1.9% to 3.0%), all of them expect high unemployment (7.9% to 9.1%) and an economy performing below peak capacity. If these predictions are true - the corresponding public dissatisfaction will define the campaign of 2010, and the legislative battles that precede it.

Both sides will struggle to pin blame for the weak economy on the other. Republicans will indict President Obama, arguing that his policies failed to improve things. President Obama will remind voters of the previous administration, arguing that congressional Republicans advocate the same policies that brought about the recession. The public lacks the technical expertise to arbitrate based on the merits - so the outcome will depend in part on how bad the economy actually is (the worse it is, the worse for President Obama), and which side shows the greatest political acumen.

If you find this to be a dispiriting commentary on democratic accountability, think of it this way. Electoral justice might be rough, but it's also consistent: bad economies mean electoral defeat for somebody. Thus, those who are still in office when the dust settles learn a valuable lesson: grow the economy, or next time it could be you. In the long run, the public gets what it wants - a government dedicated first and foremost to growth.

-Jay Cost