At an April 2008 fund-raiser in San Francisco, Barack Obama let loose with his famous "they cling to guns or religion" line. Last Saturday at a West Newton, Mass., fund-raiser, the president said, "facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning . . . because we're hard-wired not to always think clearly when we're scared."
Memo to White House: Calling voters stupid is not a winning strategy.
The economy and jobs are the No. 1 issue in every poll. Yet Mr. Obama of late has talked about immigration reform and weighed in (unprompted) on the Ground Zero mosque. He devoted Labor Day to an ineffective Mideast peace initiative. He demeans large blocs of voters and now is ending his midterm pitch with attacks on nonexistent foreign campaign contributions and weird assertions that "the Empire is striking back."
Meanwhile, Republicans have talked about little else than the economy—drawing attention to lackluster job growth, the failed stimulus, out-of-control spending, escalating deficits and the dangers of ObamaCare.
On Sunday, White House senior adviser David Axelrod promised that the administration's focus next year would be "to generate more growth and jobs" and "on our fiscal situation." That must have left congressional Democrats—battered for months by the GOP's message discipline—wondering why there's been no focus on that up to now.
Much of the blame lies with the president, who has left his party with an incoherent closing argument 12 days before the election.
In a penetrating piece in the New York Times Magazine on Oct. 12, Peter Baker profiles a president who "believes he is the smartest person in any room," according to one prominent Democratic lawmaker. He and his aides think that the core of their difficulties is "a communications problem" and the result of a "miscalculation" that the president could "forge genuine bipartisan coalitions."
Communications? After the president devoted 58 speeches and events to health care over a 51-week period, his bill grew progressively less popular.
The comment about bipartisanship is a joke. As a candidate Mr. Obama spoke about it, but as a president whose party enjoyed massive majorities in both houses of Congress, he ignored it. He could have severely weakened his opposition by drawing them in. Instead, Mr. Obama strengthened Republicans by taunting them with their seeming irrelevance, and he fashioned legislation that only Democrats could vote for. Now many of them will lose their jobs because of their votes.
How many? Virtually everyone agrees that 20 of the 37 Senate seats on the ballot this year are in play. Twelve are now held by Democrats and eight by Republicans. The Republican-held seats appear increasingly safe. It's Democrats' seats that are at risk.
As for the lower chamber, the political handicappers Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg both now have 91 Democratic House seats and nine Republican House seats in play (albeit with slightly different names on each list). Politico.com sees 99 Democratic House seats up for grabs versus five Republican seats.
How many are likely to fall? The American Enterprise Institute's Henry Olson examined wave elections (in which one party gains a big number of seats) and found that the winning party picks up roughly 70% of the seats considered vulnerable. If that model holds, we're looking at a net Republican pickup of 64 to 69 seats in the House and roughly eight seats in the Senate.
I doubt Republican gains will be that big, at least in the House. Democratic candidates have a financial edge—they ended the third quarter with an average of 53% more cash on hand than their Republican opponents. While the GOP is closing the financial gap in the final weeks, money matters.
Democrats have also invested heavily to turn out their vote. Not only will unions spend an estimated $200 million to get their supporters to the polls, but the Democratic National Committee is also investing $50 million in helping state Democratic parties with their ground games. The GOP's efforts have been much smaller.
These tactical advantages will save some Democrats in close contests. Still, even a superior ground game will not save most of them. The political environment is awful. The party's record is toxic with the public. And compounding these problems, Mr. Obama is now overseeing one of the worst White House midterm strategies in American history.
Earlier this year Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas warned moderate Democrats of a midterm bloodbath comparable to 1994. "Well, the big difference here and in '94 was you've got me," he reported the president as having said. "We're going to see how much difference that makes now," Mr. Berry added. Yes, we will.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, October 20, 2010.