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OFF TO THE RACES

Democratic Pressure Points

The Party's Best-Case Scenario For November Has Failed To Unfold

Most of the attention today will, understandably, be focused on the primary elections that are being held in a dozen states. With several marquee races, notably the Democratic Senate primary runoff in Arkansas and the gubernatorial and senatorial primaries in California, there are obviously many races that are interesting and important.

But we also seem to be approaching an inflection point in this 2010 midterm election campaign. Since last summer, the Cook Political Report has been predicting a very tough political environment for Democrats come November, with severe losses likely, significantly greater than the average first-term midterm loss of 16 seats in the House and a wash in the Senate.

 

We are currently projecting Democratic losses of between 30 and 40 seats in the House (Republicans need 39 to regain control) and four to six seats in the Senate (Republicans need 10 to gain control). Others have been saying that Democrats will certainly face losses, but they won't exceed the historical norms by much.

There is very little evidence that time has made the electorate's heart grow fonder on the health care bill.

As we enter the heart of the summer, it should become obvious which narrative will be the dominant one in this election. At this point, Democrats had hoped that voters would have warmed up to their health care reform package, that employment would be clearly bouncing back, and that they could have made significant inroads in calming the political waters that have been so turbulent over the last year.

 

At this point, there is very little evidence that time has made the electorate's heart grow fonder on the health care bill. If there is a revisionist history, it looks more likely to be written after this election rather than before it. It would be charitable to say that health care reform was a wash for Democrats; more likely it was a net negative, although there are other issues and developments that have clearly matched its importance.

Democrats had also hoped that unemployment would have improved markedly by now. But, with last week's report that the unemployment rate was 9.7 percent -- the same as January, February and March and just two-tenths of a percent better than April -- this is clearly not where Democrats hoped the jobs picture would be.

The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics has measured the monthly unemployment rate for a total of 734 months going back to January 1948. To put our current situation in historical context, only 22 of those 734 months have seen the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent or worse. Further, only once, in 1982, has the unemployment rate risen above 8 percent in an election year.

The new Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of 52 top economists released Monday shows a consensus forecast of a 9.6 percent unemployment rate for this calendar year, one-tenth of a point better than the current rate, with the rate predicted to be 9.6 percent and 9.5 percent for the third and fourth quarters, respectively; 9 percent for 2011; and 8.7 percent for the fourth quarter of 2011, the final quarter before the 2012 presidential election year begins.

 

So, the things that Democrats were worried about in September and at the beginning of this year are still big problems. But they have also now been exacerbated by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which has invited competence comparisons, whether accurate or not, to former President George W. Bush's handling of 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

Of vastly lesser importance, but still a nuisance for Democrats, are admissions that the Obama White House attempted to lure Democratic Senate challengers out of races with administration jobs, charges that are probably not legally significant but do interfere with the "different kind of president" narrative from the 2008 campaign.

With President Obama's most recent Gallup job approval rating at 47 percent, the historic norm of presidents seeing their second-year job approval ratings drop seems to be holding up.

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On the party identification front, Democrats are losing ground but Republicans are not directly picking it up. While Gallup figures show voters dropping their Democratic allegiances, they are not moving to the GOP.

Rather, they are identifying as independents or when pushed, concede that they are leaning Republican. Finally, among generic ballot tests which ask who the person being interviewed would vote for between a generic Democrat and generic Republican, Republicans are firmly ahead. Indeed, they are increasingly ahead even among registered voters, numbers that would likely understate Republican percentages this fall.

In short, what Democrats needed to happen hasn't, and while Republicans have done little to help their own case, it doesn't matter because it's not about them. As in every other midterm election, it's never a referendum on the minority party; it's a referendum on the party in power. And as of now, that's not a good place for Democrats to be.

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