How Badly Will the Democrats Do?

May 11, 2010

The 2010 midterm elections will be bad for Democrats. But the question is, will their losses be worse than the post-World War II average of 24 House and four Senate seats lost by the party that holds the White House?

The answer isn't locked in yet—and will depend on the confluence of many elements. Here are several that matter.

The most important metric is presidential job approval. President Obama is now at 51% in Gallup and 47% in Rasmussen. When Democrats lost 54 seats in 1994, Bill Clinton's job approval was at 46%. Every president has been lower by the midterm than at the start of that year. Mr. Obama was at 50% in early January. Add a persistently high jobless rate and it points to a worse-than-normal year for Congressional Democrats.

A second factor is the generic ballot—which measures voters' preference for voting for a Republican or a Democrat. At the end of the 2008 election, Democrats led in the Gallup generic ballot by 12 points. Today, the parties are tied at 45%. At this point in 1994, the GOP was nearly five points behind. By Election Day, it was five points ahead.

The GOP also enjoys a lead in the polls that now sample likely voters. In Rasmussen, the GOP is ahead 44% to 37%.

Intensity matters as well. The latest Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll reports two-thirds of Republicans are "extremely" or "very" interested in the midterms, compared to only half of Democrats. Older voters are almost twice as likely as younger voters to be interested; and seniors now favor the GOP 50% to 41%.

Look for the Obama White House to try raising Democratic intensity in the months ahead, especially among blacks, Latinos and liberals. The president's harsh attacks on the Arizona immigration law are part of this strategy.

Another important metric for the fall is the turnout for primaries. Is it rising or falling compared to four years ago? The results so far are bad for Democrats. For example, in Ohio, Democratic participation was down 24% over the last midterm while GOP turnout was up 64%.

Registration in the states that enroll by party have shown major-party and independent registration down from 2008 while third-party registrations—admittedly a small part of the total electorate—are up modestly, according to George Mason University Prof. Michael McDonald. It's early; watch what happens if both parties push registration.

Congressional job approval is an anemic 28% in a recent Associated Press poll. Thirty-two percent of Americans told ABC/Washington Post pollsters in late April that they'd vote to re-elect their congressman, while 57% said they'd look for someone else—the highest number since 58% responded that way to an ABC/Washington Post poll in October 1994.

Democrats can take heart from their party's cash position. At the end of March, the Democratic National Committee reported $15 million on hand, while the RNC had $11 million, down substantially from the $23 million it had when Mr. Obama took office. The Democratic Congressional campaign had $26 million to House Republicans' $10 million, while the Senate GOP was keeping things close, with $15 million to Senate Democrats' $17 million.

Individual Republican candidates fare better in competitive Congressional races. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, GOP Senate candidates have collectively raised $176.3 million, outpacing Democrats' $133 million. GOP House candidates have raised $240 million to Democrats' $254 million.

But spending isn't everything. In 2006, the six GOP Senate incumbents who lost outspent their opponents by a 1.65-to-1 ratio and the 22 defeated GOP House incumbents outspent their opponents 1.53 to 1.

Democrats are also helped by fewer retirements. Seventeen House Democrats have retired so far, compared to 20 House Republicans. However, more Democratic retirements (11) are swing seats than are GOP departures (2).

The White House has many tools to change the narrative to its advantage. But it's unlikely swing voters will abandon their concerns about ObamaCare, spending and deficits. The public, especially independents, increasingly believes Mr. Obama's policies threaten America's economic future.

Though this midterm election will likely turn on national concerns, it will still come down to individual contests. While a lot will play out over the next six months, there's no question good Republican candidates running effective races will make this a memorable, perhaps even epic, election for the GOP. Obama Democrats should beware.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, May 12, 2010.

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