How to look at the election's prospects

As the protracted primary season finally comes to an end, a veteran political observer offers some ways for anyone to think about the trends shaping the upcoming congressional elections and what will happen when the dust settles.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barrack Obama: Democrats are in political trouble.

As the protracted primary season finally comes to an end, a veteran political observer offers some ways for anyone to think about the trends shaping the upcoming congressional elections and what will happen when the dust settles.

Seven states (New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, Maryland, and Wisconsin) held partisan primary elections Tuesday.  A Hawaii primary Saturday will windup the primary season. 

From that point forward, the focus will be on federal- and state-level matchups between the Democratic and Republican nominees, with independent candidacies muddling things in a few states.

Here is what to watch from this point forward in November election campaigns.


The federal party in power — in this case, Democrats — traditionally loses congressional seats in off-year elections. This year the losses are expected to be larger than usual, conceivably giving Republicans control of the U.S. House and, less likely, the U.S. Senate. A wild card this year is the ascendancy of the Tea Party movement. Its emphasis on federal debt reduction, patriotism, and traditional social values has influenced the overall context of debate in the two major parties. The Tea Party label is new but Tea Partiers bearing other labels have made themselves felt since the 1960s as Goldwater Republicans, George Wallace voters, Reagan Democrats, Ross Perot supporters, and "independent" voters with no strong allegiance to either major party andswinging between them.

The continuing financial/economic distress, in particular the high unemployment rate and rising public debt, will be the biggest singleconcern of voters this fall. (That is providing, of course, that major crises do not arise in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea and that a major terrorist incident does not occur in the United States.  War-and-peace concerns always trump everything else).

Although financial/economic crises preceded President Obama's inauguration, he and congressional Democrats nonetheless are paying the price for their response to them.  The TARP funds allocated to Wall Street, the public money devoted to banking, housing and auto-industry bailouts. the health-sector remake enacted against majority public opinion, a non-stimulating but expensive stimulus program, and other programs involving higher public taxing and spending have all been unpopular.  Obama, so attentitive to the public mood in his 2008 electoral campaign, has been strangely deaf to that mood in 2009-10.  His party's candidates will pay the price for it this fall.

While the Tea Party has helped set the 2010 agenda, it has not done so at the expense of Democrats alone.  It has split the Republican Party.  Tea Partiers have tried to punish Republican incumbents idenitifed with taxing-and-spending agendas.  In some cases their candidates have defeated regular GOP candidates in primaries.  In others they have done mischief to eventual Republican nominees. (For instance, Clint Didier, who lost the Washington GOP Senate primary to Dino Rossi, continues to plague Rossi with demands that Rossi swallow Didier's agenda — or else). In several states, Tea Partiers winning GOP primaries have turned out to have questionable backgrounds or foot-in-mouth disase.  Democratic incumbents, including notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, may save seats they would have lost to more moderate GOP opponents.


Local and some national polls should be viewed with skepticism.  Trust only those polls which have a large enough sample to be meaningful.  Even they will have a 3 percent margin of error.  Those with a smaller sample can have 5-to-6-point margins of error and, often, have unbalanced voter samples. Trust those polling "likely voters" more than those surveying "registered voters."  In 2010, even "likely voters" may not be likely at all, even if they voted in 2008.  Additionally, increasing numbers of voters refuse to respond to pollsters or give them outrightly misleading information.  In this Year of Insurgency, a bonus of 3 to 4 percent should be allocated to non--incumbent challenging candidates, if only because "throw them out" sentiment is running so high and throw-them-out voters are disproportionately likely to go to the polls this fall.

There is one good rule of thumb.  An incumbent receiving 51 percent or better support is usually in good political shape.  He or she is known to voters and, after the primaries, continues to maintain majority support.  An incumbent consistently polling below 50 percent, however, is endangered.  Not necessarily a loser, but vulnerable.  Where incumbents and challengers are neck-and-neck---especially as election day nears---the challengers must be given an edge.

Turnout and intensity

Tea Partiers clearly have the most intensity of any 2010 voter group (see above).  They are likely to volunteer and go to the polls in large numbers.   Senior citizens traditionally have been a high-voting group.  In the past, they most often have voted Democratic (given the fact that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were Democratic proposals).  But today's seniors are a changing constituency.  In 2010, they are particularly angry about the cutbacks in their Medicare coverage mandated by Obamacare.

Independent voters, who went strongly for Obama in 2008, now have shifted toward Republicans — in large part because of fear of the looming federal debt bomb. Young voters, also strong for Obama in 2008, are telling pollsters they are less likely to vote this year.

That leaves black and Latino voters, labor-union members, and leftward liberals as sources of core Democratic suppport. But, even there, the news is not necessarily encouraging for Democratic candidates. Black voters are sticking with Obama but are not energized to support non-black candidates this fall. Latino voters are upset by the Arizona immigration law but also upset with Obama and congressional Democrats for failing to enact federal immigration legislation more to their liking.

The liberal base is restless about continuing U.S. involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. A labor-union organizer, interviewed on a national TV show last weekend, confessed that, when he went door-to-door to energize union members, he often found their radios and TVs turned to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck — a familiar phenomenon dating back to the blue-collar voter shifts of the 1960s and 1970s. Ronald Reagan gained a majority of union-member votes, even though their unions endorsed his Democratic opponents.


Given the above, the messages of Republican and Democratic candidates are not surprising.  Here in Washington state, Dino Rossi is pursuing a thene of stop the taxing and spending in Washington, D.C., which resonates with 2010 voters. Incumbent U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, by contrast, is "localizing" her campaign, pointing to the benefits brought to Washington by her national-level efforts. Forced to play defense, Democrats in many races are warning that Republicans "want to destroy Social Security," move jobs offshore, side with Wall Street malefactors who caused the financial crisis, and are captive to political and religious extremist elements.

Obama is blasting Republican congressional leaders from Washington, D.C., and venturing out for fundraising events, as he did recently in Seattle, but is notably absent from congressional districts where his presence would not benefit marginal Democratic incumbents.

Candidates and parties feeling threatened follow a time-honored rule:  Change the Subject.  That is what Obama and Democrats are trying to do right now.  Almost any subject is preferable to Democrats than topics related to finance, the economy, or public debt. Republicans, on the other hand, will  keep focusing on these issues and on "throw the incompetents out" themes. Their message can be far simpler than Democrats'. "Time for a change" is always appealing when voters are dissatisfied with the status quo.


When it comes to individual races, tea partiers probably will save some threatened Democratic seats. Tea Party-supported Republican nominees are likely to fail in at least a half-dozen key gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races that GOP regulars might have won. The net effect is likely to be continued (but narrow) Democratic control of the U.S. Senate.

But, checking race-by-race, I find it hard to see how Democrats can maintain control of the House. Even if they hold onto their Senate majority, Democrats will have nowhere near the 60 votes necessary to cutoff debate and force floor votes on key legislation.

Presuming that Democrats lose their House majority, Speaker Nancy Pelosi may step down as Democratic leader. She would be replaced by her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer, who is far more moderate than Pelosi and closely allied with the 50-or-so Blue Dog Democrats who resisted Pelosi on stimulus, health-care, and cap-and-trade legislation.

Presuming this predicted outcome actually takes place — or even if Democrats are able to maintain a narrow majority in the House as well as in the Senate — the prospect for 2011-2012 policy compromises will be slim. The most endangered Democratic seats are those held by moderate and conservative Democrats. The most liberal Democrats, such as Pelosi and Rep. Jim McDermott, are in safe seats and without credible opposition. The Congress, next January, will be tilted more strongly toward the center and right than it is today. Surviving Democrats, however, will tend to be liberal.  The House Blue Dog contingent will number closer to 30 than the present 50.

Obama and congressional Democrats will be unable to enact cap-and-trade or other comprehensive new legislation.  Republicans, on the other hand, will not be able to follow through on their present brave talk of rolling back Obamacare.  They could not overcome an Obama veto to do so.  At most, they might be successful in witholding appropriations from unpopular provisions of the new health-care legislation.   They will have gained seats by opposing Obama/Democratic initiatives of 2009-10 but they will lack the power to reverse them. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of