washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Keeping the Record Straight on the Midterm Landscape

At CQ today, Roll Call columnist and election handicapper Stu Rothenberg has a piece today complaining about Democrats who are arguing that it was inevitable all along that they’d have a bad midterm outcome, regardless of the economy or other objective developments.
I’m not sure which “Democrats” Rothenberg’s talking about, since the only person he cites who believes the economy is irrelevant to the midterms is Joe Scarborough.
But while I don’t personally know anyone who thinks the economy isn’t going to be a drag on Democratic performance, in burning down this straw man, Rothenberg goes too far in dismissing structural factors that were going to make 2010 far more difficult for Democrats than 2008 no matter what Barack Obama did or didn’t do.
Since Rothenberg’s entire argument is framed in terms of House seats Democrats are likely to lose, the obvious structural factor to keep in mind is the historic tendency of the party controlling the White House to lose House seats in midterms. Stu acknowledges that, but points out that the level of losses varies (of course it does) and also points to 1998 and 2002 as years the ancient rule of midterm losses didn’t apply. That’s fine, though anyone citing those two years as relevant should probably note that the former year came in the midst of the first impeachment of a president since 1867, while the latter year came after the first attack on the continental United States since 1814. At any rate, while most Democrats early in the Obama presidency hoped the party would overcome the heavy weight of history, few predicted it as likely.
But the second structural factor is one that Rothenberg does not mention at all: the very different demographic composition of midterm versus presidential electorates, which is especially important this year given the high correlation of the 2008 vote with age (at least among white voters), and the heavy shift towards older voters in midterms. As I like to say, this means that Democrats were in trouble for the midterms the very day after the 2008 elections. That doesn’t mean everything that happened since doesn’t matter, by any means, but it does suggest pessimism about 2010 and a corresponding optimism about 2012, when the 2008 turnout patterns are likely to reemerge or even intensify.
Finally, in this kind of discussion of House “gains” and “losses,” it’s important to remember that the entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for reelection every two years. So the position of the two parties nationally is reflected by the absolute results, not which party “gains” or “loses” seats from the prior election. If Democrats hang onto control of the House, it’s a Democratic victory (albeit a much smaller one than in 2008) because they will have won a majority of seats (and presumably a majority of votes for the House nationally), and it’s not a Republican victory but instead a smaller defeat. House gains or losses are relevant to trends, of course, but shouldn’t dictate characterization of specific election results.
In other words, Rothenberg’s effort to anticipate and preempt Democratic spin about the November elections is all well and good, but there a lot of questionable assumptions about this election that need to be examined–most definitely the idea that any significant Republican gains mean the country has fundamentally changed its mind since 2008. That’s a “spin” that Republicans are already avidly promoting every day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.