There are a number of conflicting dynamics and questions that are quite important to understanding next year's critical midterm elections.
First, consider the economy. While forecasts are estimating that GDP growth will range from 2.5 percent to as high as 4 percent, virtually all of the projections call for unemployment to reach about 10 percent and linger through the midterms. And yet productivity and earnings are up, Wall Street projections of holiday sales suggest a better-than-anticipated Christmas, and the index of leading economic indicators is showing its fastest growth since 1983.
If unemployment is very high but many other economic indicators show recovery, will voters be more focused on unemployment or on the more hopeful economic signs? History argues that unemployment is the stronger dynamic, but who knows?
Even in a horrendous political year, it's hard to imagine Democrats losing anywhere near 40 House incumbents.
Second, when Democrats are talking up the good news for their party, they generally start and finish with the sorry state of the GOP.
This view was buttressed last week by a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey that showed the Republican Party with a favorable rating of just 36 percent, the lowest in a decade, and unfavorables of 54 percent.
The poll, conducted Oct. 16-18 among 1,038 adults, with a 3-point error margin, showed the Democratic Party with a favorable rating of 53 percent and an unfavorable rating of 41 percent.
Historically, midterm elections are referenda on the party in power, which, if true this time, would be bad for Democrats. But if the alternative party appears so unappetizing, does that make a difference?
Republicans are hoping for another 1994, but one obvious difference between that election and 2010 is that while President George H.W. Bush had been defeated two years earlier, the GOP was not as stigmatized then as it is today. The revolution led by Newt Gingrich did not have to haul the negative baggage that the GOP now has.
So is this going to be a referendum on the party in power, as it normally is, or will the problematic image of the GOP minimize their gains?
Third, will Republican ideological infighting cut into the party's potential pick-up opportunities next year? This is a question that will likely get a lot of discussion over the next few weeks.
To be sure, there is a huge ideological struggle between the hard-edged ideologues, with their take-no-prisoners rhetoric, and the more traditional pragmatists, who, while certainly conservative, try to temper their rhetoric and be more acceptable to moderate and independent swing voters.
This division may well cost Republicans an easy victory in the special election in New York's 23rd District, where party leaders opted to select a fairly liberal Republican, Dede Scozzafava, triggering a revolt among conservatives. Of course, only in New York is there a viable Conservative Party line, with its own nominee -- Doug Hoffman in this case -- so there are limits to how far this example can be pushed, but it does show the cleavages in the party.
With potential 2012 contenders flocking to endorse the Conservative, not the Republican nominee, this will draw an enormous amount of discussion in the coming weeks.
But the governor's race in Virginia, where former Attorney General Bob McDonnell is the clear frontrunner in a state that had been trending away from the GOP, shows the potential for a candidate who is clearly conservative, but toned-down in rhetoric.
Had his style and demeanor more closely matched his very conservative Regent University master's thesis, he wouldn't be walking away with what seems likely to be a clean win.
Finally, on a more technical level, can Democrats hold the line on retirements? Forty percent of Democratic losses in 1994 were in open seats, but so far, Democrats have only eight retirements, and only two are in tough districts.
Plus, for entirely local reasons, Democrats stand a pretty good chance of picking up as many as five seats currently in GOP hands. Even in a horrendous political year, it's hard to imagine Democrats losing anywhere near 40 incumbents, so if this is going to be a net loss of 25 or more Democratic seats, there will have to be many more retirements among Democrats in tough districts than we have today.
In the immediate aftermath of the contentious summer town meetings, 2009 looked like the kind of year that would drive many Democrats in Republican-tilting districts toward the exits.
Today, the political climate for Democrats isn't any better, but the near-violent nature of the rhetoric is down, so it's unclear what will happen.
Over the next few months, we will see what will happen on the retirement scene. That could be a huge factor in determining whether this is just a bad night for Democrats, losing perhaps 15 to 25 seats, or a horrible one, losing more than 25, or even more than 40, and control of the House -- the worst-case scenario for the party.
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