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Politics / ON THE TRAIL

An Uneasy Status Quo

For all of voters' dissatisfaction, neither the White House nor either chamber of Congress likely will change hands.

A"Vote Early" sign in displayed as former President Bill Clinton speaks at a President Obama campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

photo of Reid Wilson
November 5, 2012

A nationwide bevy of principals, contractors and subcontractors has spent $6 billion on a mammoth project of never-before-seen depth, breadth and complexity, and nothing much changed: Sounds like the latest government boondoggle.

But it's not. Instead, it's a pretty apt description for Election 2012, an election which after a two-year permanent campaign will yield a result on Tuesday that looks pretty much like the status quo now: with a Democratic president hindered by a painfully slow economic recovery, a dysfunctional Senate controlled by a Democratic majority that cannot advance his agenda, and a Republican House determined to reverse course, all three institutions plotting against each other, unable and -- more importantly -- unwilling to forge a consensus.

One day before the polls open, that appears to be the course Americans will chart for themselves for the next two years -- sound and fury, signifying, if not nothing, then not very much.


The national atmospherics should spell doom for an incumbent president seeking a second term. Rather than a new era of post-partisanship, President Obama's first four years in office have yielded perhaps the most bitterly partisan climate in Washington since House Republicans impeached Bill Clinton in 1998. Americans still believe the nation is headed dramatically in the wrong direction, while only 45 percent told NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters they think the economy will get better over the next 12 months.

And yet, all signs suggest Obama will defeat Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Tuesday. Obama leads the most recent polls in the battleground states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado and Iowa, all states Romney has made a priority. Early voting in Nevada also clearly favors Democrats. Without winning two of those states at a minimum, Romney's odds of achieving the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the Oval Office are implausibly long. And Obama's leads in each state, while narrowing throughout October, have remained steady enough to give Democrats significant confidence in Obama's chances.

Similarly, after three straight elections in which major national waves have pushed one party to big gains in Congress, an equivalent boost to one side or the other has not materialized this year.

In the battle for control of the House of Representatives, that clearly favors the current Republican majority. Both sides have tried to create a one-size-fits-all argument their candidates can use to batter their rivals. Democrats have accused Republicans of planning to gut Medicare through Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal. Republicans have hammered "Obamacare" and charged Democrats with robbing Medicare of $700 billion in funding. Neither message has resonated with a broad swath of voters across the country.

Instead, the deeply polarized electorate, a post-redistricting cycle in which many House members face a significantly new electorate for the first time, Americans' poisonously negative view of Congress and local factors including scandal and poorly-run campaigns has conspired to create an atmosphere much like the 1992 elections. That year, the minority Republicans scored a net gain of just nine seats, though more than 50 members of both parties lost their jobs, either in primaries or the general election.

House Democrats are confident they will pick up a handful of seats in states such as Illinois and Maryland, where Democrat-led redistricting put Republicans in much more liberal districts. They are also likely to beat scandal-plagued Rep. David Rivera in Florida and several Republicans first elected in the 2010 wave.

House Republicans, though, have opportunities in North Carolina and Texas, where their party drew the new district boundaries, and in places such as Massachusetts, where Rep. John Tierney is embroiled in a legal case surrounding an off-shore gambling ring run by his brothers-in-law. The result will be a virtual wash, with Democrats falling far short of the 25 seats they need to pick up to regain control of Congress.

In the fight for the Senate, the polarized electorate and genuine luck favor Democrats, who cling to a 53-to-47 seat majority.

With 23 Democratic seats at risk compared with just 10 held by the GOP, Republicans once looked all but guaranteed to pick up the four seats they would need to claim the majority. But Republicans lost one of their easiest pickup opportunities with Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape."

Incumbent Democrats in Ohio and Florida appear headed for wins, while Democrats will hold open seats in Connecticut, New Mexico and Hawaii. Most observers expect Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine to outpace Republican George Allen in the Commonwealth. That leaves only Nebraska and North Dakota, where Republicans are outperforming their Democratic counterparts, as likely pickups. Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg remain locked in a tossup contest in Montana, and Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin are fighting to a near-draw in Wisconsin.

Democrats have their own opportunities that amount to a firewall protecting their majority. Independent Angus King is likely to win retiring Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe's seat; while King has not said with whom he will caucus in Washington, he has contributed to Obama and he uses Sen. John Kerry's pollster. Most Republicans concede Sen. Scott Brown is headed for defeat in Massachusetts, hindered by the state's strong Democratic tilt.

Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock's poll numbers tanked in the wake of his own Akin-like comments at a recent debate, and the latest polls show Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly poised to score a surprise upset. Democratic candidates in Nevada and Arizona trail their Republican counterparts, but it's not impossible for either to pull out a last-minute win.

The math now clearly favors the Democratic majority, with results likely to range from a Republican net gain of one seat to a slightly more improbable Democratic pickup of as many as three seats.

The same principles who fought over last year's deal on the debt ceiling -- Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- will be back at the bargaining table when Congress returns for a lame-duck session that will center on the fiscal cliff debate. Barring a last-minute surprise, polling and on-the-ground metrics suggest the status quo that sent both Congress and President Obama to the depth of public disapproval will continue its uneasy existence in the next Congress.

The stakes are no lower, but the chances that either side will be able to claim a clear public mandate certainly are.

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