Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Political Landscape

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has released the findings of an intriguing survey that should be of interest to anyone who wants to get a handle on the 2010 electorate's state of mind.

As always, though, it seems the American voters are conflicted in this midterm election season.

In November 2008, there was a distinct impression that the Republican Party had fallen out of favor with American voters, expanding a trend that appeared to begin in 2006 — although, actually, that trend may well have begun in 2004. I know George W. Bush was re–elected president that year, and Republicans gained four Senate seats and two House seats. But less than a week before the election, Bush's job approval rating was less than 50% in two polls of likely voters.

So why did Bush win re–election a few days later? There were several reasons for that, but I think one of the often overlooked reasons for it may have been the release of a video tape of Osama bin Laden only days before the election, in which bin Laden took responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, criticized Bush's response to them and claimed the attacks were part of his ongoing campaign against the West.

With that message fresh on their minds, I think many voters who might have voted for John Kerry voted instead for Bush.

And, if I am correct, it shows just how fluid the American voter is. And it might also indicate how rocky the political landscape can be.

There was a time in American history when an incumbent president who was on the ballot could count on the coattail effect helping some members of his party win House or Senate seats. But those days seem to be long gone:
  • In 1996, when Bill Clinton was re–elected, his party lost three Senate seats and won three House seats.

  • In 1992, when George H.W. Bush lost his bid for re–election, Republicans lost a seat in the Senate but gained nine seats in the House.

  • In 1984, when Ronald Reagan was re–elected in a popular and electoral vote landslide, the GOP lost a Senate seat but gained 16 House seats.

  • In 1980, when Jimmy Carter was denied a second term, his party lost 12 seats in the Senate and 35 seats in the House.

  • In 1976, when Gerald Ford lost his bid for a full term, neither party made gains in the Senate and Democrats picked up one seat in the House.

  • In 1972, as Richard Nixon was being re–elected in a landslide, Democrats gained two Senate seats and lost 13 House seats.
In fact, you would have to go all the way back to 1948, when Harry Truman was elected to a full term as president, to find the last time an election in which the presence of an incumbent president on the ballot seems to have reaped significant dividends for his party in both houses of Congress.

Well, that speaks to the difficulty that incumbent presidents have had in transferring their personal popularity to others in their party in elections in which they were on the ballot. But 2010 is a midterm election — and, as I have observed before, that is a completely different kind of animal. And it is one that tends to be hostile to the president's party.

Barack Obama is the first black president so it is tempting for many of his supporters to blame his problems on racism. And that can be a difficult charge to counter. But, true to the nature of midterm elections, the administration't party is facing problems — problems that, the Pew survey suggests, are unrelated to Obama's personal popularity.

In fact, Pew says, "Obama's job approval rating holds steady ... in the latest survey ... [and his] ratings have been mostly unchanged over the last six months, though there have been some significant shifts in opinion among independents."

Obama's problem, it seems to me, is directly related to one of his greatest assets in 2008. He won with the help of virtually unprecedented participation by demographic groups that do not normally vote — minorities, liberals, young people. Those voters did not participate in large numbers in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey last November, and they did not participate in the special election in Massachusetts last month.

If Obama can only energize those voters when he is on the ballot, that does not bode well for Democrats this year. And it has nothing to do with his race.

But can the Republicans capitalize on what appears to be an opportunity to make gains in 2010? That is far from certain. Pew reports that neither party is seen as offering solutions.

"Just 29% of Americans say the Republican Party has done a good job of offering solutions to the country's problems over the past year — twice that number (60%) say they have done a poor job," Pew reports. "The Democratic Party does only somewhat better — 40% good job, 52% poor job."

With roughly nine–tenths of Republicans and Democrats indicating that they favor the congressional candidates from their own party, the battle in 2010 appears to depend on independent voters. The independents, Pew reports, currently favor Republicans, but their support is fluid. Only 40% of independents express a preference for Republican candidates while 33% favor Democrats. The remaining 27% appear to be up for grabs.

This probably should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following political developments in America, but Pew concludes that the "wild card" this year is anti–incumbent sentiment, "which is as extensive as it has been in 16 years of Pew Research Center surveys."

"The only recent midterm campaigns when anti–incumbent sentiment equaled its current levels were in 2006 and 1994," Pew reports, "which culminated in elections that changed the balance of power on Capitol Hill."

The balance of congressional power may well shift this year, too. That remains to be seen. Clearly, there are some House districts that are so heavily tilted to one side or another that they are almost certain not to shift.

One such district is Arizona's Third, which is currently represented by Republican John Shadegg. Shadegg chose not to seek another term, but his district appears to be decidedly Republican, so Shadegg's retirement does not mean the open seat is a realistic target for Democrats.

However, there might be a spirited campaign for the Republican nomination. And one of the candidates for that nomination apparently will be the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, Benjamin Quayle.

It could be a very interesting year in American politics.

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