Anyone with children who have come of age in the last few decades knows well of the glum-yet-lovable donkey Eeyore. In the myriad of Winnie The Pooh books and films, Eeyore is the one with a perpetual cloud over his head, always willing to predict pending disaster for Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, and the gang.
As the summer has run its course, the pundit class has adopted a conventional wisdom about the electoral prospects for Democrats that would make Eeyore look like the keynote speaker at an "Up With People" convention.
Consider, first, the words of one of the top electoral pundits in the game, Charlie Cook:
Today’s regression-based trend estimate computed by our friends at Pollster.com from all major national surveys show an approval rating [for President Obama] of 50.7 percent and disapproval of 43.7 percent.
These data confirm anecdotal evidence, and our own view, that the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Today, The Cook Political Report’s Congressional election model, based on individual races, is pointing toward a net Democratic loss of between six and 12 seats, but our sense, factoring in macro-political dynamics is that this is far too low.
Many veteran Congressional election watchers, including Democratic ones, report an eerie sense of déjà vu, with a consensus forming that the chances of Democratic losses going higher than 20 seats is just as good as the chances of Democratic losses going lower than 20 seats.
Cook stated as much last week, when he paid a visit to Netroots Nation and sat on a panel moderated by our own DemFromCT. On that same panel, Nate Silver of 538 went even further, and made Cook look like an optimist:
It's fast becoming conventional wisdom, but statistics wonk Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com reiterated that Democrats should be nervous about the 2010 midterm elections. "I don't think you should feel at all comforted by 2010," said Silver. The political prognosticator predicted a 20- to 50-seat loss in the House for the Democrats and either a one-seat gain or as much as a six-seat loss for the Democrats in the Senate.
To what do we owe such pessimism? For his part, Silver did cite a few things in a piece that he wrote after his appearance in Pittsburgh:
As I've been telling people all week here in Pittsburgh, there's ample reason for Democrats to be worried -- perhaps deeply so -- about 2010. Without major intervening events like 9/11, the party that wins the White House almost always loses seats at the midterm elections -- since World War II, an average of 17 seats in the House after the White House changes parties. Democrats have substantially more seats to defend than Republicans, particularly in the House. They appear to face a significant enthusiasm gap after having dominated virtually all close elections in 2006 and 2008. And the economy and health care are contingencies that could work either way, but which probably present more downside risk to Democrats than upside over the next 12-18 months, particularly if some version of health care reform fails to pass.
So, from one respected analyst, we get some reasons why Democrats should be concerned. There is some merit in Silver's analysis here, to be sure. History is quite clearly working against the Democrats, in terms of how incumbent parties tend to perform in the midterms. I think some of the "enthusiasm gap" issue is exaggerated, but two things are beyond question, at this point: (1) Republicans are on an emotional high they have not experienced in years, and (2) The Democratic base is starting to become a little bit discouraged. That said, this is a recipe for Democratic losses, but not necessarily of the caliber that Silver cited in Pittsburgh. In other words, a modest difference in enthusiasm (which could easily be abated by the Democrats getting off the schneid on Health Care) and a historical trend don't make for a 50-seat shift. Especially given the dynamics of the political parties at the present time (more on this later).
Other opinion makers (particularly the cable news crowd) have chimed in that the shifting polls are also evidence that the Democratic peaks of the past few cycles are about to lapse into deep valleys.
Of all the "Democrats in freefall" narratives that have flooded the zone over the last few weeks, the poll-based ones are, far and away, the most obnoxious.
Especially when, as the Washington Post did late in the week, your writers have to work hard to massage the polling numbers so as not to offend the congealing conventional wisdom.
Clear manipulation of numbers to fit predetermined conclusions aside, one has to wonder how pundits who are proclaiming a soon-to-fall sky in 2010 were the same folks who were so difficult to convince just three years ago.
Remember that the conventional wisdom back then was that it was no better than even money that the Republicans could lose 15 seats (and with it, their majority) in 2006, despite a president whose job approval was circling the drain. Consider--in the ten surveys of President Bush before Election Day 2006, his average job approval was languishing at 37.4% (the source for this average can be found here).
Despite that, most pundits were very slow to project a Democratic takeover of the House, which took just a fraction of the nearly forty seat shift that would be necessary in the House in 2010 for the Democratic majority to be supplanted. One does have to wonder why people so slow to forecast disaster for the party of a President with 37% job approval are so quick to forecast it for the party of a President with 51% job approval.
Another factor that the pundit classes seem reluctant to discuss is the relative popularity not just of the majority party, but of the minority party, as well. The assumption appears, for the moment, to be that if the Democratic Party continues to shed popularity, they will lose to the Republicans, no matter what the relative state of the GOP may be.
That assumption seems to be a logical leap. Even conceding that President Obama and the Democratic Party have seen some erosion in their favorabilities over the course of the year, one fact that seems to be almost routinely ignored in the public conversation about the 2010 elections is that any dissipation in Democratic support has not been coupled with a resurrection of the Republican brand name.
Indeed, even as the Democratic brand name has taken a bit of a beating during this summer, the GOP's favorability has continued to erode, save for a slight bump in the last week, buoyed by an increase in popularity among their own base.
Going back through the last four election cycles, we can see a distinct trend: the party that has picked up seats in the House of Representatives has been the more popular party with the voters in the months immediately prior to the elections. This sounds simple, yet it has guided the last four election cycles.
Average Lead in Favorability/Approval, Political Parties, September and October of Election Year (Number of Polls in Parentheses)
2008: Democrats +9.7% (11 polls)
2006: Democrats +8.9% (11 polls)
2004: Republicans +1.3% (3 polls)
2002: Republicans +1.4% (7 polls)
Right now (conceding, of course, that this metric is bound to change in the next fifteen months), the spread between support for the Democratic and Republican Parties stands at an even wider margin than it did in either 2006 or 2008, two monstrously bad years for the GOP.
Indeed, the closest of the six most recent polls (all released since June 15th) measuring partisan support came in the most recent one: an early August CNN poll where the Democrats stood at 52% approval, while the Republicans stood at 41% approval.
It goes without saying that elections are often referenda on the incumbents. And if the incumbent party is viewed poorly, that is going to be problematic for said party. But if the other party in the contest is even less popular, that certainly ought to have some bearing on the outcome of these elections. The lack of trust in the GOP brand name is why it is difficult to buy a macro-analysis portending doom for the Democratic Party. It is possible, in elections as in sports, to be blessed by the caliber (or lack thereof) of your opposition.
This does not mean, however, that the Democrats can rest easy--not by any stretch of the imagination. What is already a small enthusiasm gap between partisans could grow into a chasm if the Democrats fail to pass meaningful health reform. We have already seen this surfacing in the last week's Daily Kos weekly tracking poll.
That might be something for the Democratic leadership to consider as they ramp up activity at the end of this session.