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Computing the odds for 2010

Before future columns return to extracting additional nuggets of knowledge from the historic election of 2008, I thought I might peer into the future, examining some possibilities for 2010.

With an unpopular war, an even more unpopular president and an economy that was at best going to be sluggish, the broad contours of ’06 and ’08 were largely predictable. 2010 entails far greater uncertainty.

At such times, I return to the wisdom I gained growing up in Ohio, listening to famed coach Woody Hayes, whose “three yards and a cloud of dust” football philosophy was predicated on simple odds:

“When you put the ball in the air, three things can happen, and two of them are bad.”

As 2010 approaches, however, three things can happen to Democrats and, from a political perspective, two of them are good.

The cheeriest possibility is that the economy begins to improve by 2010, with Democrats reaping the credit. If Congress enacts the rescue package quickly enough, economists believe it just might happen. The consensus of economic forecasters is that the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) will contract sharply, by over 2 percent in 2009, but increase by over 1.6 percent in 2010.

On a sour note, those same forecasts suggest unemployment will continue to rise, even into 2010.

Moody’s Mark Zandi predicts that if the stimulus is passed promptly, though, unemployment will peak in the second quarter of 2010, falling in the critical pre-election third quarter and beyond. Thus, while the economy will not return to normal, by Election Day 2010 it is likely to be noticeably improved, yielding political dividends for Democrats.

That is exactly what happened after Democrats swept into power in the wake of Hoover’s Depression. The Depression deepened in the early days of the Roosevelt administration, but by Election Day, recovery had seemingly begun and Democrats broke the midterm curse when Republicans, having lost over 100 seats in ’32, went on to lose 14 more in ’34.

Less rosy is the possibility that the economy remains in recession, but voters blame Bush. Everyone knows the crisis predates President Obama’s arrival in the Oval Office, and voters blame President Bush for our current straits, which is one of the reasons Republicans up and down the ticket fared so poorly in 2008. If GOP opposition to the stimulus picks up steam, their culpability for the nation’s economic woes may even increase.

For now, voters also recognize that curing the economic ills caused by Bush’s policies will take time — nearly two-thirds predict it will take at least two years. Thus, even if the economy itself has not improved by 2010, if voters continue to lay blame where it belongs — on the GOP — Democrats could continue to do well against the party of economic collapse.

A third, very dark possibility is that the economy fails to recover and voters blame Democrats. Such a scenario is only likely if Democrats fumble badly, with internal bickering preventing enactment of a stimulus. That would not only affect the economy — absent the stimulus, Zandi estimates the GDP will continue to shrink in ’10, with unemployment cresting at around 11 percent on election eve — but also cast serious doubts on Democrats’ ability to govern, fanning the same flames that cost us 54 seats in 1994 — the last time Democrats had control of both the executive and legislative branches.

Of course, I have left out one logical possibility — that economic improvement will be credited to Bush and the GOP — but since the chances of that scenario are about nil, we can safely say that one of our three 2010 scenarios is good for the country, while two out of three bode well for Democrats.

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.