When people suggest that one election will be exactly like another, I recall a lesson my good friend, political economist Tom Gallagher, taught me about historical parallels. Tom would often quote Mark Twain’s line that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The truth is that while no two elections are truly alike, they can share some similarities, particularly if you don’t look too closely at the details.
President Obama’s job-approval rating — generally bouncing around between 43 percent and 45 percent — is about where it was going into the 2010 midterms, when Democrats suffered devastating losses of 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. But many other current circumstances aren’t quite like 2010. In 2006, Democrats picked up 31 House seats, and then another 21 in 2008, setting the party up for big House losses in 2010. Since those 2010 losses, Democrats picked up only eight House seats in 2012, so in 2014 they aren’t carrying a huge number of seats in difficult districts. Putting aside the fact that 96 percent of Democratic House members are in districts that Obama carried in 2012, a basic axiom in politics is that you can’t lose a seat that you’ve already lost. Having lost so many seats in 2010, Democrats can’t lose them again.
In 2006, President Bush had just a 38 percent approval rating, equivalent to the low end of the range of approval that Obama has had in recent months. Worth noting is that on bad days, Obama’s Gallup approval rating is 38 or 39 percent; on good days, it’s 45 or 46 percent. Overall, he’s averaging 41 percent but has been creeping up a couple of points over the last month or so.
In the 2006 election, Bush’s party lost 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate. It’s difficult to see the party opposite the president picking up 30 House seats this time around, but six seats in the Senate is entirely possible, some say likely.
What makes 2014 unique is how many Democratic Senate seats are in enemy territory; indeed, the GOP could win back the chamber simply by picking up Democratic seats in states that Mitt Romney carried by 14 points or more in 2012. In some ways, the situation this year is analogous to 1986, President Reagan’s second-term midterm election. In that election, Republicans lost eight Senate seats, dropping them from a 53-47 seat majority to a 45-55 seat deficit afterward. Quite simply, Reagan’s 10-point landslide over President Carter six years earlier, when those Senate seats had last been up, swept in a net gain of a dozen Senate seats and 34 House seats for Republicans. In the following House election in 1982, Republicans lost 26 seats, just over two-thirds of their 1980 gains. Moreover, in the 12-seat Senate GOP gain of 1980, some pretty weak Republicans managed to get reelected and were slaughtered when they were next up before voters in 1986 without Reagan at the top of the ticket.
In the case of Democrats in 2014, it is not so much that they are weak politically — for the most part they aren’t — but rather that they are running in states that are very difficult for their party to hold. These seats only fell into Democratic hands in the first place when Obama was defeating John McCain in 2008. In 1986, Republican exposure was the weakness of the party’s incumbents; in 2014, Democrats’ weakness lies in the location of where their incumbents are running.
My Cook Political Report colleague David Wasserman has come to call this election environment “2010 Lite.” He sees this as an environment that is tough for Democrats, but perhaps a bit less tough than 2010, with different circumstances and minimal exposure to losses in the House, but greater exposure in the Senate. Although Obama’s numbers might be about the same as in 2010, the Republicans’ brand damage might offset it a touch. As in 2010, the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature legislative accomplishment, is front and center. Some polls indicate the law is less unpopular, though for every poll that shows the ACA numbers improving, two show the public’s feelings remaining unchanged. At best, one can say that the improvement is inconclusive; mark me down as a skeptic.
Democrats are popping corks over ACA sign-ups hitting the 7 million mark, but consider that this figure is only a bit above 2 percent of the population, and that the 7 million figure may include a decent percentage of people who had coverage either through an employer or through a plan that was canceled. Pretending that the ACA is not going to be a liability this year would be ill-advised. Even considering that some people may like and benefit from the new law, the enthusiasm and intensity in this election is all on the Republican side, and that is very unlikely to change.
Political consultant and former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Political Director Tom King, acknowledging the tough environment for his party, suggested that this is a year when every Democrat — certainly every single one in a potentially competitive race — had better “put together their A game,” prepare for the worst, and hope that they are pleasantly surprised.