Current Events and the Psychology of Politics

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Aug 22nd, 2009

It’s common for the party that controls the White House to lose seats in Congress in the first off-year election after winning the presidency.

How bad will 2010 be for Democrats? Current projections range from cautious estimates of  just a handful (not much more than 5), to credible estimates of around 20, to doomsday scenarios of double that (and loss of Democratic control of the House of Representatives).

Charlie Cook: Dem situation has ‘slipped completely out of control’

By Charles Mahtesian logo
August 20, 2009

Charlie Cook, one of the best political handicappers in the business, sent out a special update to Cook Political Report subscribers Thursday that should send shivers down Democratic spines.

Reviewing recent polling and the 2010 election landscape, Cook can envision a scenario in which Democratic House losses could exceed 20 seats.

“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 Reports 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,” he wrote.

“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 scrupulously avoided any mention that Democratic control of the House is in jeopardy but, noting a new Gallup poll showing Congress job disapproval at 70 percent among independents, concluded that the post-recess environment could feel considerably different than when Congress left in August. …

Full report and comments


Related reports

Faith in Obama drops as reform fears rise (Washington Post, Aug. 21, 2009) — Public confidence in President Obama’s leadership has declined sharply over the summer, amid intensifying opposition to health-care reform that threatens to undercut his attempt to enact major changes to the system, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. … Full story

Are the dour Democratic projections about 2010 justified?
(Daily Kos, Aug. 22, 2009)

Cook Political Report: ‘A dangerous slide’ for Democrats (Politico, Sept. 3, 2009) — “Even if Obama and Democrats are just as popular next November as they were last November, they might stand to lose five to ten seats in the House based on the altered composition of the midterm electorate alone. The latest public opinion diagnostics, however, point to a dangerous slide. As voters’ views of Obama and Democrats’ handling of health care has dimmed, their inclination to elect Democrats to Congress has waned.” … “Right now, we’re looking at a wave cycle, but the question is will it be a small wave or a major wave.” … Full story

For Obama and Democrats, Colorado becomes less welcoming (Washington Post, Sept. 6, 2009) — Today, the energy that powered Obama to victory has begun to dissipate. Some of his supporters remain on the sidelines; others are, if not disillusioned, questioning what has happened to his presidency. As they look toward 2010, Democrats are nervous. … Full story


1/1/2010 Update

GOP Poised for Comeback in Midterm Elections

Republicans could have a big year, but they need to win 40 House and 11 Senate seats to regain control of Congress. That’s a tall order.

By Mark Z. Barabak

January 1, 2010


After losing the White House and nearly 70 congressional seats in the last two elections, Republicans are poised for a strong comeback in 2010, with significant gains likely in the House and a good chance of boosting their numbers in the Senate and statehouses across the country. …

“It all adds up to a pretty bad year for the party in power,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “How bad? I’m not sure we know yet.” …

One big question is whether the GOP can capitalize on the free-floating hostility embodied by the anti-incumbent “tea party” movement to seize back control of Congress, four years after Democrats won power. Republicans need to win 40 House seats and 11 in the Senate — which, for now, seems unlikely.

But plenty can change by November. Last spring, Democrats seemed well positioned to add Senate seats. Today, a Republican gain appears more probable, costing Democrats their 60-vote supermajority and ability to stop GOP filibusters — though that could change again. …

Obama was elected with the strongest showing by a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 30 years, thanks largely to a plunging economy and unhappiness with Bush. There was talk of a long-term realignment after decades of conservative ascendance. But after battles over healthcare, a climate-change bill and hundreds of billions in spending to spur the economy, it is Democrats who face a backlash and Republicans who are campaigning on a promise of change. …

Since World War II, the party of a new president has lost an average of 16 House seats in midterm elections, a handful of governorships and more than 200 state legislative seats. The parties have come out close to even in Senate races.

The problem for Democrats is evident in polling, which shows a precipitous slide in Obama’s job approval rating, from a high of about 80% before he took office to 48% in the latest aggregation by, a political website. The fortunes of the two major parties often rise or fall with their leader in the White House: Bill Clinton, bruised by his failed effort to pass healthcare reform, had a 46% approval rating in 1994 when Republicans took over Congress. Bush, plagued by the unpopular war in Iraq, was at 38% when Democrats won control in 2006.

More worrisome for Democrats is the likelihood that many of their voters will stay home. Turnout always falls in nonpresidential election years, and that is why strategists closely gauge voter interest. Repeated surveys have found Republicans much more animated than Democrats; a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in mid-December found that 56% of Republicans were “very interested,” compared with 46% of Democrats. …


1/21/2010 Update

Dem Defeat in Mass. Reshapes 2010 Landscape

GOP: ‘The message of Massachusetts is clear: No Democrat is safe’

January 21, 2010

BOSTON — Former Massachusetts Treasurer Joe Malone said Thursday he expects to run against an incumbent congressional Democrat this fall, part of a wave of political recalibrations occurring nationally after Republican Scott Brown’s upset win in the special election to replace Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal Democrat facing a re-election challenge, declared “every state is in play now.” The anti-spending group Club for Growth said it’s trying to recruit conservative Rep. Mike Pence to challenge Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh in Indiana.

Congressional Republicans see House seats in Arkansas, New York, Michigan and Ohio in play, raising their hopes for winning back majority control they lost in 2006.

“The message of Massachusetts is clear: No Democrat is safe,” said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the GOP committee charged with electing Republican House members. “We’re already seeing the ripple effects.” …

Brown’s victory cost President Barack Obama not just the Democratic Senate supermajority he was counting on to pass his health care overhaul, it also laid bare unrest among pivotal independents, who helped him win in 2008 but abandoned Obama in droves the day before the first anniversary of his inauguration.

Brown rode a wave of populist, anti-government sentiment to claim a seat the Democrats had held in true-blue Massachusetts for over a half-century. The Republican won across Cape Cod, where Malone is planning to run against Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.

Brown even claimed the Barnstable precinct where Kennedy voted and the family has its famed compound in Hyannis Port. …

The Senate will have 57 Democrats, two independents who vote with them and 41 Republicans once Brown is sworn in. At least 36 seats are up for election this fall. …

Democrats control the House by a margin of 256-178 with one vacancy. They could see double-digit losses this fall, a common trend for the party in power, as happened when Democrats last lost control in 1994.

Republicans would have to pick up a net 39 seats to take control of the House, but far more Democratic seats are vulnerable than Republican ones. About two dozen Democratic districts are especially ripe for a switch, compared with about a dozen GOP districts. …


1/25/2010 Update

Smarting Democrats Face Barrage of Bad News

A year after triumphant win, Dems plagued by retirements, recruiting woes


January 25, 2010

WASHINGTON — As if it couldn’t get any worse.

In only a week, the already difficult political situation facing Democrats ahead of this fall’s midterm elections grew even more troubling. And the bloodletting may not be over.

The latest blows: Vice President Joe Biden’s son opted out of a Senate run in Delaware, giving Republicans better-than-even odds of taking over the seat Biden held 36 years, and a moderate Democrat in an Arkansas swing-voting district announced his retirement, the second in as many weeks.

All that comes atop Democrats’ loss of Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat to Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and as the White House builds up its political team to prevent defeats up and down ballots nationwide come November. …

Just a year ago, Democrats were boasting about the launch of a new era. Obama’s party was salivating at the thought of padding its comfortable majorities after several Republicans announced they would retire rather than run again.

Now, Democrats are on defense over big-government, big-spending policies. An anti-Washington wave is sweeping the country. And people are furious over a 10 percent unemployment rate and Wall Street bailouts.

Failed recruitments and growing retirements make it more likely that Democrats will emerge from the 2010 midterms with fewer numbers in Congress, which would pose challenges for Obama’s agenda. However, Democrats still are likely to retain control of the Senate, and probably the House, too. …

Republicans have their problems, too. Cash is one. Others include primary challenges from conservative “tea party” candidates against establishment candidates. And voters still don’t have a high opinion of the GOP.

But Republicans have momentum in the wake of Brown’s Massachusetts victory. …

With Brown’s win, Democrats control the Senate 59-41. Republicans would need to pick up 10 seats, and not lose any, to gain control. It’s not impossible. …


4/25/2010 Update

Democrats long-held seats face G.O.P. threat (Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney, New York Times, April 25, 2010) — The fight for the midterm elections is not confined to traditional battlegrounds as voter discontent surges, threatening seats and Democratic control of Congress. … Full story


8/23/2010 Update

Poll Numbers in 1994, a Bad Year for Democrats, Don’t Bode Well for Them in 2010

By Chris Cillizza

August 23, 2010


Is it deja vu all over again for Democrats?

Some neutral observers and senior strategists within the party have begun to believe that the national political environment is not only similar to what they saw in 1994 — when Democrats lost control of the House and Senate — but could in fact be worse by Election Day.

A quick look at the broadest atmospheric indicators designed to measure which way the national winds are blowing — the generic ballot and presidential approval — affirms the sense that the political environment looks every bit as gloomy for Democrats today as it did 16 years ago.

President Obama’s job [approval] number is likely to be as bad or worse than [Bill] Clinton’s when November rolls around, the Democratic generic-ballot advantage of plus 12 to plus 15 in 2006 and 2008 is now completely gone, and conservatives are energized like 1994,” said Stu Rothenberg, an independent political analyst and editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a well-read campaign tip sheet.

The generic ballot — would you vote for an unnamed Democrat or an unnamed Republican? — is either similar or worse for Democrats (depending on which poll you look at) than it was in 1994.

In an August 1994 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 49 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Democrat while 42 percent said they would back the Republican. Last month, 47 percent said they would support the Republican while 46 percent chose the Democrat. …

Presidential approval numbers paint a slightly more optimistic picture for Democrats. …

Combine the similarities between 1994 and 2010 on the generic ballot and presidential approval with a clear intensity gap between the Republican base (fired up to vote) and the Democratic base (less so), and Democratic strategists are worried that they are watching history repeat itself.

“Our losses occurred because Republican turnout was massive,” said one senior party strategist deeply involved in the 1994 campaign. “The right was motivated in 1994, and while it would have seemed impossible to me then, it feels like the Republicans are much more motivated to participate in this election” than they were then.

Although few savvy Democratic strategists debate the difficulty of the national political environment, they do note that there are two important differences between the 1994 election and this one.

The first is the relative weakness of the Republican brand. In 1994, Republicans had been out of power in the House for four decades, and most voters had a limited sense of what a GOP House would be like. In 2010, the American public has fired Republicans — in the House, Senate and White House — twice in the past four years. And, in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, the GOP had its lowest favorability ratings ever. (We repeat: ever.)

Second, Democrats understand the building frustration and desire for change in a way that the party simply didn’t get 16 years ago. …

Charlie Cook, a political handicapper and editor of the Cook Political Report …  noted that the state of the economy, which may have mitigated Democratic losses in 1994 with an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, almost certainly will exacerbate them this year, as unemployment now stands at 9.5 percent.


9/24/2010 Update

History Shows Obama, Dems Face Stiff Headwinds

NBC Political Unit

September 24, 2010

WASHINGTON — With the midterm elections less than six weeks away, President Obama and the Democratic Party are suffering from a lack of voter optimism, according to a new Voter Confidence Index created by NBC News and

Pessimism about the current direction of the nation, lowered approval of Obama’s performance in office and dim views of the Democratic rule in Congress could spell major losses for the party this November — midterm losses similar to those suffered by other presidents in recent history.

The NBC Political Unit and created the VCI as a way to try and measure the current political environment, what it may signal about this fall’s elections — and how it compares with past midterm elections. For the index, we’re using a combination of three questions commonly asked in national polls — the president’s job approval rating, the direction of the country, and the generic congressional ballot. As a dynamic measurement, the index will change over time as attitudes change.

Bottom line: A positive (+) VCI is good for the president’s party; a negative (-) one is bad. Generally, the lower the number, the worse the president’s party performs in the midterms.

History not on Obama’s side

Having begun his presidency with high expectations (and a high VCI), fierce fights over federal stimulus spending and health care have combined with a still-struggling economy and a months-long oil spill to erode voter attitudes. Currently, the VCI shows Obama and the Democratic Party in negative territory, with a -38 VCI average for the month of September.

That’s eight points worse than where President Clinton and the Democrats stood in 1994, when Democrats lost 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. Does that mean Democrats are doomed to repeat 1994? Not necessarily. There were mitigating [aggravating?] structural factors in 1994, including more Democratic retirements and an environment that seemed to sneak up on longtime incumbents. Neither is the case this year.

Also consider, the current VCI is 17 points better than where George W. Bush and Republicans stood in 2006, when Republicans lost 30 House seats and six in the Senate. And it’s three points worse than where Ronald Reagan and the GOP stood in 1982. But Republicans then lost 26 House seats and when unemployment was at 10 percent, like it nearly is today.

The bottom line is: The current political environment is bad for Democrats, and that forecasts major losses in November. …

Full report

MSNBC Interactive tools

Voter Confidence Index, a new measure from NBC News and, shows trouble for Democrats. (Image:

Related report on this site

Can a Democrat Beat Michele Bachmann?


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago Today — August 22, 2008

On the Campaign Trail: Day 39

Walking with three of my children (Matt, 11; Elizabeth, 9; and Patrick, 2) for a short distance in a safe area off Highway 23 in Foley near the start of the day’s walk.

One year ago today, on the 39th day of my campaign against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann for the Republican nomination as House of Representatives candidate in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, I started a second walking tour — a 50-mile campaign swing on foot down Minnesota Highway 23 from Foley in the east through St. Cloud, Waite Park, Rockville, Cold Spring, and Richmond to Paynesville on the western boundary of the Sixth Congressional District.

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