Breathless myths and stodgy realities of the 2010 Election

Breathless Myth #1: The Democrats are Losing Because They Lost Control of the Narrative

The primary reason that the Democrats will have a rough Election Night is because the economy is in rough shape.  It is no secret that members of the president’s party lose seats in midterm elections.  A national narrative is very hard to achieve in a midterm election because some districts are gerrymandered to the point that races are not very competitive.  The general structure of the midterms does not set up well for the majority party.  The Democrats who are the most in danger are ones who represent districts that John McCain won in 2008 or that Republicans previously held in 2006 or 2004.  

Breathless Myth #2: If President Obama had Worked Harder on Major Issues or Campaigned Harder in the Election Season, The Democrats Would be Winning

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan and others call this idea “The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.” If only President Obama had the political guts, the theory goes, to push for a public-option on health care or to campaign hard for Democrats, the public would open its arms to the president and the Republican Party would hand over its sword to the White House, admit it had been bested, and fade gently into that good night – or better yet, finally start governing in a (“real!”) bi-partisan way.  

This is beyond a myth: it is a fantasy.  People seem comfortable ascribing themselves to the theory that the president can single-handedly change the constraints of a senate filibuster and ideological heterogeneity in the House with gumption as the only weapon in the Obama’s political holster.  Of course, it isn’t just the public’s fault – candidates love to tell the public how they will take “insert your state here” values to Washington, just as candidate Obama promised to change Washington.  In fact, Jon Stewart asked the president about this on Wednesday night.  The president claimed that his efforts to change Washington will take a little more time; what it will really require is highly unlikely actual structural changes to the lawmaking process, something that President Obama hinted at in his interview with Stewart regarding the future of the filibuster.

Stodgy Reality #1: The Fundamentals Matter

Political scientists who forecast elections have not done much in the way of updating their models from where they stood back in July. The state of the economy then still basically predicts that the Republicans ought to take the House with a small majority and just miss taking the Senate.  These predictions still hold true.  In fact, Larry Sabato, whose excellent “Crystal Ball” website regularly forecasts election results with an accuracy that makes Vegas odds-makers jealous, recently tweeted that the Crystal Ball was not going to have to meaningfully update their summertime estimates.  “Enik Rising” blogger and political scientist Seth Masket recently came to a similar conclusion regarding his own 2010 forecast. It isn’t sexy, but the fundamentals matter.

Stodgy Reality #2: The Tea Party is not a Monolithic Group that is either Universally Helping or Hurting the Republican Party  

Many conservatives, in the public and in the media love to claim that the Tea Party is sweeping Republicans into office when they otherwise wouldn’t while many liberals in the electorate and on the op-ed pages gleefully write the words “Christine O’Donnell” to suggest that the Tea Party is a dud.  On the one hand, Tea Party supporters have been fairly strategic – supporting people like Scott Brown, a candidate they do not agree with on many substantive issues and endorsing many “quality challengers” – people who have held previous elective office.  Almost all Tea Party endorsees are Republicans and are pressuring the broader party to become more socially and economically conservative.  On the other hand, the Tea Party’s missteps have been so dramatic, re: Christine O’Donnell and Joe Miller, that they might be rightly blamed for costing the Republicans the Senate.  

A president and United States Senate of one party and a United States House of Representatives of the other is a pretty rare thing in American politics. Finally, we’ll have something breathlessly real to report about in the coming years!

Michael W. Wagner is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Nebraska.

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