As early as the summer of 2009 there were growing warning signs that Democrats might face a tough midterm election this year. President Obama's job approval rating among the key bloc of independent voters, which was in the 60s before Memorial Day of last year, dropped to the 50s over the course of the summer and into the 40s around Labor Day. That number has hovered around 38-40 percent over the last few months. Independents voted for congressional Democrats by 18 points in 2006 but by 8 points in 2008. Anecdotal evidence followed by polling data began suggesting problems for Democrats, and it culminated in gubernatorial losses in New Jersey and Virginia last November and the loss of the late Edward Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in January.
For a long time it was primarily the "macro-political," national polling data that was pointing to increasing signs of major Democratic midterm losses, while Democratic fortunes in individual races looked fine. But there began a gradual erosion in strength on a district-by-district basis, with incumbent Democrats in swing or Republican-leaning districts looking increasingly endangered while their colleagues in some more reliably Democratic seats began to look softer in their support and more vulnerable to a significant challenge. In recent months, the national data reflecting a reversal of the 2006 and 2008 trends -- namely, independent voters swinging strongly toward Republicans and a strong partisan enthusiasm gap favoring Republicans -- began arguing that Republicans were in line to win a majority in the House with significant gains in the Senate.
In recent weeks, though, the district-by-district deterioration has reached the tipping point. It can now be said that Republicans will likely take back the House. An individual race analysis points to GOP gains of over 40 seats in the House, but the national polling suggests gains substantially higher than that.
While the individual race-by-race approach to analyzing House seats works great in "normal" election years, it invariably underestimates what happens in wave years, and the evidence is indisputable that this is a wave year.
By the end of this week, the Cook Political Report will be rating about eight Democratic open seats as either Lean or Likely Republican, about 45 in the Toss Up column and 30 more in the Lean Democratic column, bringing the total number of vulnerable Democratic seats to about 80. To be clear, Democrats are not going to lose 80 seats. In the 26 years of the Cook Political Report, no party has ever even come close to winning every single competitive House race. But it would be reasonable to assume that each of the Democrat-held seats in the Lean or Likely Republican column will be won by the GOP and that the overwhelming majority of Toss Up seats will go Republican. In addition, in this kind of a wave year, it's reasonable to assume that Democrats will lose some of the currently Lean Democratic seats, those races where Democrats are currently ahead but have far less than insurmountable leads.
This year is not exactly like 1994; no two elections are ever alike. There are some arguments that it might not be as bad for Democrats as the election 16 years ago. There are fewer open Democratic seats, Democrats won't be caught napping at the end, and the GOP brand is badly damaged.
But while these are reasonable points, there are more arguments that this will be worse for Democrats than 1994. While Democrats had more open seats in 1994, they had not made strong gains in 1990 or 1992, so there were not many Democrats sitting in seats that had been Republican. Democrats didn't carry into 1994 a lot of seats that had been won under fairly exotic conditions, with voter turnout among young, African-American and Hispanic voters at record levels. The unemployment rate in 1994 was 5.6 percent, not 9.5 percent. The Speaker of the House was Tom Foley and the Majority Leader of the Senate was George Mitchell, neither a well-known or polarizing figure threatening to push aside the local incumbents as the face of the Democratic Congress.
In short, the circumstances are different, but there is no reason to believe that it is any less challenging.
There has been much written in this column and elsewhere about the generic congressional ballot test and its translation into the national popular vote for the House and into seat counts for each party, but suffice it to say, the national numbers are pointing to gains well north of the 39 seats needed for the House to flip and have been for some time.
While Democrats' majority status in the Senate is not as endangered as in the House, it does look like Republicans will likely score a net gain of at least eight seats, and a 10-seat swing that would give Republicans control of the upper chamber is not implausible. Cook Political Report Senate Editor Jennifer Duffy points out that in 1998, six of the seven Senate races rated Toss Up in the final ratings were won by Democrats. In 2000, seven out of nine went Democratic; in 2002, six out of nine went Republican; in 2004, the GOP won eight out of nine; in 2006, Democrats won eight out of nine; and in 2008, Democrats won seven out of nine. There is a strong tendency in Senate races for most of the closest races to break in one direction. In this year, Democrats have gotten few breaks.
The election is less than eight weeks away, and events could alter the trajectory of this election and render current forecasts wrong. But the events or developments necessary to alter the direction this campaign has taken would have to be very, very dramatic.