Congressional Democrats are caught between a rock and a hard place electorally. Squeezed tightly by both historical and current trends, there are few positive issues to seize and little time in which to do so before November. While potential does not necessarily equate to reality, this year’s congressional elections portend ominously.
Dickens could have been thinking of congressional Democrats when he wrote “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Congressional Democrats hold overwhelming majorities in the House and the Senate. At Pennsylvania Avenue’s other end resides Obama, elected with the largest percentage of the popular vote for a Democrat in 44 years.
Just about everything else though is the worst of times. And they don’t look to get better soon. The economy still feels like the worst recession in decades – if not technically, at least to virtually anyone not an economist. It brings with it near double-digit unemployment and a troubling persistence to stay that way.
America’s fiscal books show the strain. Last year, Washington borrowed one-tenth, and spent one quarter, of everything America produced. This year promises to be nearly identical.
Abroad, America still has two wars in the Middle East and increasing amounts of its debt in the Far East.
The signature accomplishment with which Democrats could hope to counteract these problems is health care reform. It remains generally unpopular.
Finally, there is little time to fix these things between now and November. Just six months away on the calendar but, once recesses are subtracted, Congress really has just over three months to alter things politically.
Even in the best of times, the historical trend of mid-term elections offers little reassurance to the party whose president holds the White House. Over the last 100 years, Democrats have lost on average 32 House seats and 1.4 Senate seats in the first mid-term election of a Democrat president. Only once, in 1934 with FDR, have Democrats not lost seats. Absent that election, they have lost an average of 39 House and 3.3 Senate seats.
The reason for such ebbs and flows is found within the electorate. Voters do not switch parties as much as they “switch off and on” during elections. The party of the winning president sees its supporters more motivated, while the losing candidate finds the reverse. Two years later, without the popular presidential candidate on the ballot, the president’s party finds its supporters less motivated. The opposing party, minus its less popular presidential candidate, again finds the reverse.
Obama exemplified the pattern. He not only motivated the Democratic base, he brought new people to the polls. Capturing the highest popular vote percentage of any Democratic candidate since Johnson, he is only the second Democrat to capture over 50% of the popular presidential vote since FDR in 1944.
But now the electoral tide is receding. In this case, the ebb in voter interest is deepened all the more, relative to its amplified 2008 height. In part, Democrats now are victims of their candidate’s own earlier success.
Since August 2009, the midterm cycle has begun to exert itself. The difference between Obama’s performance at the polls and other Democrats’ has been remarkable in the six races of national significance – the MA and NJ gubernatorial races, the MA Senate special election, and three House special elections in NY, CA, and FL – since last August.
Despite none of these races taking place in Republican bastions, the Democrat candidate in each location has lost ground from Obama’s 2008 showing in their respective location.
The fact that these elections have not taken place in dark “red” locales has probably muted the Democrat drop-off. Still the decline has been pronounced. On average, the Democrat candidate has polled 9.5 percentage points below Obama’s 2008 level. The significance of this decline is easily shown: had Obama totaled 9.5 percentage points less, John McCain would have won the popular vote, and likely the presidency.
It is not only past races rightfully making congressional Democrats apprehensive. Subtracting 9.5 percentage points from current Democrats’ last reelection total, would have put 58 House Democrats and 5 Senate Democrats below 50% in their last election.
Add to this 18 open House seats (two of which are among the above 58 seats) and four special election seats (in which the candidate will not have been in office for even a full year), and there are a total of 78 House seats for party leaders to watch carefully. In the Senate, with an additional five open Democratic seats and four appointed Senators facing voters for the first time, there are 14 seats to concern leaders.
These are significant totals, equaling 30% of all House Democratic seats and 25% of Senate Democratic seats. Both also well exceed historical Democratic first midterm losses. Even if just half these seats were lost, Democrats would barely retain their majorities in Congress.
Certainly there are mitigating factors. Republicans have their own seats and vulnerable incumbents to watch. However, the two trends – the long-term, first-term midterm and the near-term, post-August 2009 – are both decidedly against the Democrats.
Democrats are decidedly stuck. Neither prevailing trend is encouraging and both are closing quickly. High stakes, increasing odds, and dwindling time make for fitful sleep over the next six months. If either trend plays out, then congressional Democrats will awake after Election Day to find that the nightmares are real.