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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

2010 Mid Terms: Shades of ’82, Not ’94

This item by J.P. Green was first published on July 19, 2010.
Now that all possible angles comparing the 2010 mid terms to those in 1994 have been explored, Rebecca Kaplan argues at Slate.com that the more relevant comparison is the 1982 elections. According to Kaplan’s post, “The Lessons of 1982: Why Democrats need not fear the ghosts of 1994“:

…Speculation is running rampant, particularly in the media and especially among Republicans (and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs), that 2010 could be a replay of the Democrats’ lowest political moment in the last half-century: the 1994 midterms, when Republicans seized 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, taking control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. But the similarities between 2010 and 1994 are superficial. The more relevant election–the one that gives a better gauge of the magnitude of losses the Democrats may see–is the 1982 midterms. Although some political scientists were predicting that the Democrats would gain as many as 50 seats, on Election Day they took only 26 seats from the Republicans.
…In many respects, today’s economic conditions are identical to those in 1982. The yearly change in real disposable income per capita is a key factor in predicting midterm outcomes: When their wallets are fuller, people are more likely to send their representatives back to Washington. And right now this number is almost the same as it was at this point in 1982. For the third quarter of 2010, Moody’s Economy.com is predicting a 0.4 percent increase in real disposable income per capita from last year–a fairly stagnant number that does not show much economic growth for the average citizen. In the third quarter of 1982, the change in real disposable income per capita was 0.5 percent–also fairly flat. The unemployment rate is also eerily familiar; it’s now pushing 10 percent, while in 1982 it was 9.7 percent. In 1994, meanwhile, the economy was in better shape than it is now or was in 1982, with a 6.1 percent unemployment rate and 2.3 percent increase in personal disposable income from the third quarter of 1993.

This last point regarding joblessness is not so reassuring. Looking at it from a slightly different angle, if the economy was better in ’94, and we still got creamed, how is that encouraging for Dems?
Kaplan points out that Dem and GOP congressional candidates are spending about equally now, as they did in ’82. While in 94, Republicans outspent Dems by an average of $91,383 in each race — or nearly $5 for every $3 spent by Dem candidates. Clearly, Democratic candidates have got to match their GOP adversaries in 2010, if they want to keep running the House and Senate. Kaplan goes out on a bit of a limb, noting “Without outspending the Democrats, it is unlikely the Republicans will be able to achieve all the pickups they are hoping for.”
As Kaplan explains, Republicans, under Gingrich’s “message mastery” did a particularly good job of working existing media in 94, while Democrats have a significant edge with new media in 2010. She adds that Clinton “lost control of the national conversation” and was distracted by non-economic issues, while Republicans hammered away. That is not the case today.
In a sense, however, all comparisons are not as relevant as some would have us believe. The information revolution that has occurred since ’94, and even more so since ’82, is a huge wild card. Political messaging has been transformed by the internet, Fox-TV and now MSNBC. Not to diminish the importance of economic indicators, but it matters a lot that candidates now have more opportunities to communicate with voters, and progresives seem to have an edge over conservatives in tapping this vein — for now.
Kaplan makes another good point in noting the deepening division in the GOP constituency exemplified by the tea party circus, which has produced some dicey candidates, like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, while Dems have so far eschewed the circular firing squad of earlier years.
Here’s hoping Kaplan’s insights pan out. The key thing for Dems is to learn from electoral history, not to be limited by it. If Kaplan is right, the key challenges for Dems are to keep “control of the national conversation” and invest the bucks needed to fire up the base and win a healthy share of the persuadables.

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