By this point in the 2010 cycle, it is not a surprise to anyone that the forecasts for Democrats in this cycle are pretty dire. One quick tour around the websites for the leading election/horserace pundits tells you all you need to know about their perceptions of the current electoral landscape:
The End of Hope? -- Larry Sabato
Midterm Momentum is All GOP's -- Charlie Cook
28 House Seats Move Towards GOP -- Stu Rothenberg
Let's stipulate two things. One, all three of these gentlemen could well be correct. Our own Daily Kos Tracking Poll has data points that ought to give any Democrat indigestion, especially on voter intensity. Two, I am willing to give all three gentleman a pass on partisan motive. The fact that folks on both sides of the ideological fence have been quick to throw all three of these men under the "in the tank for the other side" bus tells me that they probably hit it down the fairway more often than not.
That said, the glum projections of all three prognosticators regarding the 2010 election cycle stands in stark contrast to the last two elections, including the last mid-term cycle.
Make no mistake--some of the tools used in forecasting elections in 2006 and 2008 painted a picture that was just as dire for the Republicans, if not more so, as 2010's trends appear to be for the Democrats.
Consider just two of those factors, often cited in the traditional media of signs of impending Democratic doom.
One is the relative popularity of the President. To be certain, our own tracking poll makes clear that President Obama's favorables took a sizeable hit after he took office. Not that this is unusual (the honeymoon inevitably ends), but the downward trend over the course of the year was real and substantial. That said, President Obama remains, even at the present trough in his approval numbers, more popular than President Bush was in January of 2006. Consider the stats: the most recent Pollster average job approval for the president is between 47-48%. Bear in mind, that includes Rasmussen, a pollster whose GOP House effect and prolific nature tends to skew the numbers a bit. Going back to 2006, there were (according to Polling Report) a total of sixteen polls measuring the job approval of President Bush. His average for the month of January? 42.3%. In 2008, of course, those numbers were even more pessimistic for the incumbent president.
Another instrument for election forecasting is the "generic ballot test" looking at voter intentions in the midterm elections. In the current election cycle, even with Rasmussen putting their thumb on the scale here (of the 43 generic ballot test polls in the 2009-2010 showing a Republican lead, all but nine of them were Rasmussen polls), Republicans have a lead of 2.9% in the Pollster average. In January of 2006, there were five generic ballot tests recorded by Polling Report. The average Democratic lead was 9.4%.
Nevertheless, the 2010 election cycle is being forecasted as being more one-sided than either the 2008 or 2006 election cycles, and these forecasts are coming at a much earlier point than ever before.
Consider, in 2008, the Cook Report had a relatively even split between Democratic and Republican vulnerabilities in the House of Representatives, with 21 GOP seats rated as "leaning" to the incumbent party, or worse. This compared to 14 Democratic seats in the same designation.
Eventually, of course, the one-sided nature of the election cycle was duly noted. By November of 2008, the gap at the Cook Report was considerably wider (51 GOP to just 12 Dems).
In 2010, that comparison is much, much more stark, despite it being still comparably early in the cycle: with 50 Democrats in similar designations, versus just ten for Republicans.
The other members of the pundit class are equally pessimistic: Larry Sabato forecasts Republicans gains of seven seats in the Senate, and 27 seats in the House. And Stuart Rothenberg lists 72 seats in the House as "in play". 58 of them are Democratic, while 14 are Republican.
The confidence of the pundit class in Republican ascendancy in 2010 has occasionally produced eye-popping prognostications. Just this past week, the news that Beau Biden was not seeking the Senate seat in Delaware led the Cook Report, for example, to rate the seat as "Safely Republican" in the hands of GOP candidate Mike Castle.
However, in 2008, the same distinction was never granted to the open Senate seat in Virginia, despite the fact that Democrat Mark Warner was blasting former GOP Governor Jim Gilmore by a two-to-one margin (which wound up being close to the final margin of victory).
So, there is at least some evidence that those that set the conventional wisdom on elections and campaigns are a lot quicker to call the tsunami in this election cycle than they were in either 2006 or 2008.
What is the harm in that?
There actually is some harm in that. There is no question that the early calls of a Republican wave (or a Democratic undertow, whichever you prefer) have had huge effects on both candidate recruitment and fundraising. While Democrats and Republicans have roughly similar numbers of open seats to defend, it is indisputable that the districts abandoned by the Democrats are tougher to defend than the ones, by and large, being abandoned by the GOP.
Not only that, news of GOP competitiveness are going to have a clear impact on fundraising efforts. Campaign donors are cautious bettors, and they like their money to pay off. Scott Brown's massive fundraising effort in Massachusetts tells us that Republican donors don't believe right now there is such a thing as a Republican longshot. Their confidence level, buoyed by such election forecasting, has not been this high in three cycles, or more.
Therefore, there is certainly the danger present that these kind of dour forecasts become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the conventional wisdom says that Democrats are in trouble. Then, the recruiting gets easier for the other side (although both the DCCC and DSCC deserve a lot of credit for creating a rough parity in recruiting for this cycle), and the money starts flowing on the other side. Next thing you know, when it comes time for votes to be cast, the Democrats could actually be in exactly the kind of trouble projected a year earlier.
Perhaps Democrats are victims of their own success in this regard. When Charlie Cook was writing about the 2006 election cycle in April of that year, he said the following:
"A hurricane does seem likely to hit the GOP this November,'' said Charlie Cook, an independent congressional handicapper who analyzed the field recently for National Journal magazine.
"But the ... structural barriers in the House and Senate are protecting the Republican majorities like seawalls and would likely withstand the surge from a category 1, 2, or 3 storm," Cook wrote in reference to the natural advantages of incumbency such as name recognition, ability to raise money and favorably drawn districts.
The ability of Democrats to penetrate those "seawalls" in 2006, and then to do so once again in 2008, have eroded the once-common conventional wisdom that most Congressional races are foregone conclusions, and shifts are only possible in a very limited playing field. There was a time when election forecasters scoffed at the notion that more than 20-40 seats could be in play in any given cycle.
They are believers now. Unfortunately for Democrats, however, they are believers that it will be Republicans that put the races into play.