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Exposure + recession = disaster



Having won a total of 55 seats in the ’06 and ’08 cycles to put in place the largest Democratic majorities since the late ’80s and early ’90s, Democrats had a lot of seats to lose. If Democrats had suffered average White House-party midterm losses in percentage terms, 39 seats would have fallen into Republican hands. Though half again as many ended up in the GOP column, for reasons we will see below, it was anything but an average year.

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Building those majorities put Democrats deep into politically hostile territory — 48 Democrats held House seats in districts John McCain had won, and won despite the highest percentage vote for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide. As I pointed out four years ago, those mismatched seats provide an important measure of instability in the political system, and the greater the instability, the greater the possibility of massive change. Going into 1994, 53 Democrats held seats won by George H.W. Bush in 1992 and over 80 percent of the incumbents who lost that year occupied those seats. In 2010, Democrats lost 36 of the 48 “McCain seats,” which contributed 60 percent of the Republican gains.

 The magnitude of the wave was dictated by an economy in crisis. Not only was unemployment stuck near 10 percent, but nearly a third of voters suffered at least one layoff in their household. In addition, family incomes fell more than in other recent recessions, leaving families with less purchasing power today than they had over a decade ago.
The electoral power of the economy was evident in the exit polls. In both 2008 and 2010, 63 percent of voters cited the economy as the issue most important to them. In 2008, those voters gave Democratic House candidates a 12-point margin — in 2010 they went for GOP candidates by 10 points.

Only 10 percent expressed positive views of the economy, and they voted for Democratic House candidates by a whopping 58-point margin, while the 90 percent who were negative about the economy voted for Republicans by a 15-point margin. (While the following exercise is laden with methodological problems, it does provide a useful illustration.) By these numbers, if just 20 percent had been positive about the economy (instead of 10 percent), Republicans would have won the national congressional vote by less than one point, which likely would have translated into Democrats retaining control of the House.

Yet another look at the economy’s role is afforded by an exit poll question asking about voters’ family finances over the last two years. Democrats won among the 57 percent who said they were the same or better off. However, the 43 percent who felt worse off backed the GOP by a 29-point margin.

Back in January 2009, I wrote here that voters had given Democrats “less a triumph and more an opportunity to perform.” While Americans are still more likely to blame President George W. Bush than President Obama for our economic straits, and while Democrats have labored mightily to turn the economy around, by Election Day 2010 we had not succeeded. Voters reward success but punish failure, and that failure to perform goes a long way toward explaining Democrats’ current woes.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.