As we begin the countdown to Election Day, where do we stand on the fundamentals, those structural factors that impact every race on the ballot?
It’s a midterm. Perhaps the single most important fact about this election cycle is that it is a midterm. In every midterm but three since 1862, the party controlling the White House has lost seats. The exceptions were truly exceptional: In 2002, the nation was still in the grips of 9/11; in 1998, Republicans were impeaching Bill Clinton and the economy was booming; and in 1934, the country was growing out of depression and the future of the New Deal was at stake two years into FDR’s term. No specter that significant haunts this election, creating the expectation that Democrats could lose seats in the House. Historically, losses have ranged widely, from four seats in John F. Kennedy’s midterm to 77 in Warren G. Harding’s.
In recent decades, the party controlling the White House has lost an average of 30 House seats and four in the Senate. A smaller turnover than that would be a Democratic victory.
Presidential approval is another fundamental, driving voters toward the incumbent party when the president is popular and toward the out party when he’s not. Currently, about 43 percent approve of President Obama’s performance. That puts him meaningfully above George W. Bush’s standing in 2006 and slightly above Ronald Reagan’s 1982 level, but far below Clinton’s 65 percent and Bush’s 68 percent in years when the president’s party gained seats.
Exposure also counts. Suffice it to say, the more seats a party has, the more it is likely to lose. Thanks to huge Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, we controlled a lot of seats we were destined to lose in 2010. This year, we only control 199 seats in the House, and most of those districts tend to be reliably Democratic. Moreover, one of the defining characteristics of our current politics is the strong and increasing correlation between presidential voting on the one hand and votes for other offices on the other. In the House, that limits losses, but it could prove more problematic in the Senate, where Democrats are defending 21 seats, six in states Obama lost twice.
Economic performance traditionally matters a great deal. Recently released figures confounded the critics and surprised analysts by revealing the U.S. economy grew by 4.2 percent last quarter. Unfortunately, the economy actually contracted by 2.1 percent during the first quarter, leaving voters less pleased than they might otherwise be.
Voters are beginning to notice, however. While Wall Street projected a decline, consumer confidence, as measured by The Conference Board, shot up to its highest levels in almost seven years. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment also rose in August to its highest level since 2007.
However, the most politically potent economic indicator is the change in per capita real disposable income, which measures the lived economy, factoring in both inflation and unemployment. This tells us how much more or less people have in their pockets and what that money will buy. The latest reading suggests income grew by about 1.9 percent over the last year, slightly above average for midterms, but again on average, the president’s party doesn’t do well in midterms.
Party image is a wild card. The Republican brand is in tatters. In the history of polling, neither major party has ever been disliked as widely or as intensely as Republicans are today. How much will that affect midterm outcomes? No one can say for certain, but it doesn’t help the GOP. It’s probably one of the reasons Democrats lead in the generic House vote despite the less than encouraging realities already discussed.
These rather messy fundamentals leave open a fairly wide range of outcomes.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.