Recent trends point to disastrous election for Democrats

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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As November looms, no wonder Democrats are concerned.  Just as trends are important in investing, and much time is devoted to trying to discern them, so too in politics.  In both cases, the reason is simple: they matter.  Right now, from whatever perspective, those trends are running against the Democrats.

In politics, the most important election is always the next one.  It is especially true this year, with so many problems to address and so many policies yet to be finished.  Generally, we hear the trends are going against the Democrats, but what are the trends?  With what precision can we predict this will be a tough election for them?  Plenty.

Rarely do the trends line up as consistently as they do right now.  Historical, near-term, and current, all point one direction.

Historically, the party that holds the White House loses congressional seats in a president’s first midterm election.  In the last 100 years, only twice has a party bucked this trend: once by the Democrats with FDR in 1934, and once by the Republicans with George W. Bush in 2002.

Over the last century, on average, Democrats lose 30 House seats and 1.4 Senate seats in their president’s first mid-term elections.  Just the average historical loss in the House this November would leave Republicans only 9 votes short of a majority.

The near-term trend offers more of the same.  Last August, public opinion reached a watershed on the national health care reform proposal and it has not yet reversed.  Over that year, there have been eight “national elections”: the 2009 VA and NJ gubernatorials, the MA special Senate election, and five House special elections (NY-23, CA-10, FL-19, HI-1, and PA-12).

None of these elections has taken place in “dark red” electorates, which could skew the results decidedly against Democrats.  Yet in only one has the Democratic candidate bested Obama’s 2008 total in that locale.  On average, the Democratic candidates have run 7.7 percentage points behind Obama’s presidential tally with their particular electorate.

Such an amount may seem small, but politics usually is a zero-sum game – what one side loses, the other gains – so the electoral effect is double.  Of the Democratic candidates seeking reelection this year, 49 House and 4 Senate incumbents would have been at or below 50%, if 7.7 percentage points were taken from their last election’s vote percentage.

Democrats have other challenges too.  Open seats, appointed seats, and special election seats all mean seats in which incumbents have less than full-term experience – that means less time to connect with the voters and to raise reelection money.  Twenty-five Democratic House seats and nine Democratic Senate seats fall in this category.

All told, Democrats have 74 House seats and 14 Senate seats that are cause for concern under the near-term trend.  Both figures are well more than double Democratic historical loss trends of a first midterm election.

Of course, not all these Democrats will lose by any means, and Republicans have their own seats in these categories as well.  But remember the trends.  Both the historical and the near-term trends are running against Democrats, not against Republicans.

Finally, there is the current trend.  For this we can look at a variety of polling results, but two clearly show it.  According to a Quinnipiac University nationwide poll (2,181 registered voters, margin of error +/-2.1%) released 7/21, Obama’s approval rating was 44%, while his disapproval was 48%.

In the “handling” of every sampled policy area – the economy, Gulf oil spill, illegal immigration, foreign policy, and Afghanistan – Obama’s disapproval was higher than his approval rating.  In the House generic ballot question, the Republican led the Democratic 43% to 38% and with independent voters the spread was 15%.

Even more compelling was a National Public Radio June poll conducted in swing congressional districts – 60 Democratic-held and 10 Republican-held seats.  Obama’s approval rating was 42% versus 53% disapproval.  In the House election preferences, the Republican led 49% to 41% for the Democrat.

With November just over three months away, forget the theoretical of policy differences.  It is the empirical of numerical differences that matter most now.  Democrats find themselves thrice in a vise, squeezed by all three trends – historical, near-term, and current – and the screws appear to tightening.

Mr. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 -2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987-2000.

J.T. Young