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Calm down, work hard

Let’s be clear: Democratic losses are likely. But predicting the outcome based on today’s circumstances ignores a fundamental law of nature — things change.

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If politics was physics, its first law would be that the president’s party loses House seats in midterm elections. Since 1842, the party in the White House has lost seats in all but three midterm elections. Since World War II, the average loss has been about 24 seats.

Of course, averages can obscure as much as they reveal — for example, since the advent of candidate-centered House campaigns in the early ’80s, the average loss has been about 15 seats. Losses of 15-24 seats would be disastrous for the members holding those seats, but would still leave Democrats in control.

Even those averages obscure substantial variation — from an eight-seat gain to a loss of 52 seats.

Several related factors, taken together, help determine the exact magnitude of the outcome.

Presidential popularity — Generally, more popular presidents lose fewer seats, while unpopular presidents forfeit more. When President Bill Clinton broke the midterm loss pattern for only the second time, he enjoyed an approval rating of 65 percent, while President George W. Bush’s midterm gains coincided with a 67 percent approval rating. When Democrats lost 52 seats in 1994, Clinton was in the low 40s; Harry Truman was in the low 30s when he lost 45 seats. The correlation is far from perfect, but careful analysis makes clear that presidential popularity is one important determinant of midterm losses.

We cannot know where President Barack Obama will be in the fall of 2010, but having remained over 50 percent during the worst of the recession and during the most ferocious attacks on his healthcare plan, it seems more likely that he will be above that mark than below it.

Economic performance — Strong economies tend to reduce midterm losses while weak economies exacerbate them. More precisely, the key is not the current state of the economy, but rather its trajectory. While forecasters offer different predictions for November 2010, nearly all of them expect the economy to be better then than it is today. Today’s economic news is holding down ratings for the president and causing headaches for Democratic incumbents across the country. However, the underlying economic perceptions are likely to shift by Election Day, and assessments of Democrats will improve along with them.

Partisanship — Voters’ partisan dispositions also affect midterm outcomes. When the GOP picked up seats in Bush’s first midterm, more voters identified with the Republican Party than with Democrats for the first time in over a decade. Today, Democrats hold a five-point advantage that is likely to increase as the economy improves. Democrats’ partisan advantage is reflected in the average margin of over seven points in the generic House vote as reported by traditional, nonpartisan polls since August.

In all likelihood, then, while Democrats are headed for losses in 2010, those losses will be in line with historic benchmarks, and not big enough to threaten control of the House.

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Besides a renewed recession, what could make Democratic prospects worse: failure to achieve fundamental goals like healthcare reform or success at passing major legislation the public dislikes.

In 1994, Democrats’ healthcare failure and their success in raising taxes both contributed to massive defeats. In 2006, a faltering economy and a failing Iraq policy had similar consequences for Republicans.

The lesson: Do something important, but be careful

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.