Wednesday, March 23, 2011

2012 Is Only Nine Months Away

I guess I've always been something of an election junkie.

As far back as I can remember, I've been fascinated by political campaigns.

I was always interested in history. I guess I was drawn to the exciting stories about the birth of this nation and the decisions that shaped it along the way, but you could rightfully say that just about everything that has happened in America since the Revolutionary War has come to be because of the always–evolving democratic process.

In short, history is about America's leaders and how they carried out the will of the people. It is through a free and democratic election that the will of the people is imposed; thus, elections are the points of origin.

Much of the attention these days is on the Republican prospects for 2012 — who will win the nomination? But, at this point, I think that is still more of a popularity contest, a measure of name recognition, than anything else.

No votes have been cast, other than public opinion polls, which can be useful but have no real affect on the nominating process. No delegates, after all, are committed through the results of opinion polls — other than the polls that count, the ones on Election Day.

Until Iowa holds its caucuses and New Hampshire holds its primaries, no one is leading in either party, not even the incumbent — who, in large part because of foreign policy, may yet draw opposition from within his own party, as Jimmy Carter did in 1980.

It is only natural, I suppose, to speculate about the identities of the nominees, even if one assumes that Obama will be renominated, perhaps unchallenged.

But, at this point in the nominating process, I think it is more instructive to think about what is likely to dominate the political dialogue next year and how it might play with the voters.

I expect the economy to take center stage next year, but I don't expect much to be done about it this year. Anything that is done can only benefit Barack Obama — and Republicans clearly do not want to do anything that will strengthen Obama's hand.

They were cautious at first, unsure of how he would fare as president but conscious of the fact that his initial approval ratings were astronomical; thus, they were hesitant. As those ratings fell, Republicans were emboldened and more inclined to resist White House initiatives.

That wasn't necessarily a problem for Democrats early on. They enjoyed legislative advantages that made it possible for them to enact virtually anything they wished — but, given their disinclination for organization, they were reluctant to seize the moment during the six or seven months in 2009 when all things truly were possible.

They seemed less interested in actually governing and more interested in rationalizing and refining their excuses for why they couldn't do things instead of insisting that they would achieve them — even if it seemed impossible.

That is not leadership. That isn't vision.

It sure isn't "Yes we can." It's more like "Well, we could, but we won't." Or, perhaps, "Turns out we can't."

Democrats can argue, of course, that things are a lot more difficult once you're on the inside than they are when you're still on the outside. But that argument has a limited shelf life. It usually expires in a matter of months, not years.

The time for the Democrats to do something about the economy was between June 2009, when Al Franken's victory was certified in Minnesota, and January 2010, when Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts. But Obama dithered and so did the Democrats in Congress, and they squandered their window of opportunity.

Since Democrats no longer have the majority in the House and no longer enjoy a "filibuster–proof" majority in the Senate, any initiative that they present in 2011 is all but certain to go down in flames. Ditto anything the Republicans may propose because Obama and the Democrats will not be inclined to hand them any legislative victories, either.

Today, jobs aren't being lost at the rate they were when Obama first became president, but they aren't being created in large numbers, either. That is a stalemate that seems certain to continue — which probably suits Republicans just fine.

It doesn't let the Democrats off the hook because they haven't been making very many attempts to find some common ground. It's one thing to talk about bipartisanship when you really don't need it to accomplish your goals; it's another to sing its praises when it is the only way to achieve something.

What I'm saying is simple: I really don't expect either side to put any arrows in its quiver this year. Therefore, the records on which they will campaign are set. That campaign is under way.

It is a contentious, polarized time in American politics, a time when — I believe — voters are more likely than ever to return to their historical tendencies.

And I am very interested in Chris Cillizza's recent observations in the Washington Post. He is absolutely right when he points out that the battle for the Senate and the battle for the presidency may be decided by which party wins the same group of states.

Next year, Democrats will have to defend about two–thirds of the Senate seats that are up for election, in addition to trying to defend the White House.

What will it take to win? Which states are most likely to "flip," as the saying goes, in either battle?

Cillizza writes that there are nine states that are likely to play key roles next year.

Some are familiar battlegrounds — Ohio, Florida, Michigan. Others are less so, perhaps because they are smaller (but still potentially significant in a close race) — Missouri, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico.

And there is one — Virginia — that voted for Obama in 2008, but that was only the second time in the last 15 national elections that the "Mother of Presidents" voted for a Democrat. Polls suggest Virginia is gravitating back to the Republican column.

The importance of those nine states in the battles for both the presidency and the Senate cannot be overstated.

"Of the nine states," Cillizza writes, "Obama carried seven in 2008 — losing only Arizona and Missouri — but Republicans had considerable success in several of them in 2010."

And, unless the trend is reversed, they may continue to enjoy success in them — at more than one level.

Last month, Gallup reported that Obama's approval in all nine was below 50%.

That doesn't mean Obama cannot win those states, but the states' voting histories indicate that it may be an uphill battle to win a majority of them.

And if it is a struggle for the president, it is likely to be even tougher for the members of his party who are farther down on the ballot.

Because electoral politics is frequently a "trickle down" contest, how Obama fares in these key states can influence the fortunes of the Democrats who are seeking another term or attempting to hold seats for their party — and that's going to be very important.

Democrats hold seven of the Senate seats that will be on the ballots in those states next year — Bill Nelson (Florida), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Herb Kohl (Wisconsin) and Jim Webb (Virginia).

Webb has already announced that he will not seek another term, and Kohl may choose not to run, either. Republican senators in Arizona and Nevada have announced they won't run in 2012.

The dynamics are different in Senate races, but they can be influenced by the president's performance.

Don't believe it? Just look at the results from November 1980, when nine Democratic senators were defeated and three open seats that were held by Democrats swung to the Republicans.

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