Midterms no pre­dic­tor for 2012

Even if the GOP does take Congress, that doesn’t spell doom for an Obama re­elec­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - The Nation - mark.barabak@latimes.com

With Repub­li­cans poised for a big win Nov. 2, the coun­try has be­gun a dra­matic shift away from Pres­i­dent Obama and his cen­ter-left poli­cies, fore­shad­ow­ing a tough fight should he seek re­elec­tion in 2012. Or per­haps not. A GOP takeover of Congress, if it hap­pens, could prove a po­lit­i­cal bless­ing for the pres­i­dent. Obama can stake a mid­dle ground against Repub­li­cans torn be­tween their cage-rat­tling “tea party” con­stituency and the need to gov­ern and no longer just carp at Washington. The re­sult: a siz­able Obama vic­tory two years hence. Maybe. The point is, no one re­ally knows and the re­sult of the midterm elec­tion will do lit­tle to au­gur the out­come in 2012, de­spite what pun­dits might say.

Us­ing the end of World War II as a start, his­tory of­fers plenty of ev­i­dence to sup­port both sce­nar­ios.

In 1946, 1982 and 1994, the party hold­ing the White House suf­fered big losses in Congress dur­ing the midterm elec­tion; two years later the in­cum­bent won re­elec­tion — quite hand­ily in the case of Pres­i­dent Rea­gan in 1984 and Pres­i­dent Clin­ton a dozen years later.

In 1958, 1974 and 2006, sig­nif­i­cant con­gres­sional losses pre­ceded con­tests that ush­ered a new party into the White House — nar­rowly in 1960 and 1976 and rather com­fort­ably in 2008, when Obama was elected.

“Cam­paigns mat­ter. You can’t just do a sta­tis­ti­cal model and for­get about it,” said Rhodes Cook, whose po­lit­i­cal re­port, the Rhodes Cook Let­ter, is the cam­paign junkie’s an­swer to Bill James’ “Base­ball Ab­stract.”

Among the ques­tions sur­round­ing 2012: What will the Repub­li­can field look like? Will the tea party ex­ist, and in what form: sub­sumed into the GOP or as an in­de­pen­dent move­ment? Will Obama face a Demo­cratic pri­mary chal­lenge, as­sum­ing he runs again? Will that help or hurt?

“There’s a lot of bank shots to be played,” Cook said, “depend­ing on what hap­pens.”

One thing is cer­tain: The turnout on Nov. 6, 2012, will prob­a­bly be very dif­fer­ent from this Novem­ber’s elec­torate. Midterm races tend to draw vot­ers who are older, whiter and more con­ser­va­tively in­clined than those who turn out for pres­i­den­tial con­tests. That means the vot­ers who put Obama in the Oval Of­fice may not have gone away so much as gone into hi­ber­na­tion.

“One of the big mis­takes peo­ple make in all kinds of anal­y­sis is ex­trap­o­lat­ing the present into the in­def­i­nite fu­ture,” said Mark Mell­man, a vet­eran poll­ster and Demo­cratic strate­gist. “One thing we do know about the fu­ture is that it will be dif­fer­ent in some ways from the present.”

The vari­ance be­tween off-year and pres­i­den­tial elec­tions is also rea­son to ig­nore any procla­ma­tions on how one party or an­other has turned a state from red to blue, or vice versa.

Take Cal­i­for­nia, for in­stance. The GOP has not won — or even se­ri­ously com­peted — at the pres­i­den­tial level in more than 20 years. A vic­tory by Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial hope­ful Meg Whitman or U.S. Se­nate can­di­date Carly Fio­r­ina would surely hearten party lead­ers.

But the po­lit­i­cal fun­da­men­tals haven’t changed. Lati­nos and young vot­ers are an in­creas­ingly large part of the elec­torate, and they tend to vote heav­ily Demo­cratic in pres­i­den­tial races. “Repub­li­cans might not write Cal­i­for­nia off from the start, as they have done,” Cook said. “But they still have the same ba­sic de­mo­graph­ics to con­tend with.”

Not only that, Cal­i­for­nia re­mains pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. Any savvy cam­paign strate­gist will prob­a­bly fig­ure that a dol­lar spent in the state in 2012, even if it is marginally more com­pet­i­tive, would be more wisely spread across a hand­ful of peren­nial tar­gets, such as Ohio, Wis­con­sin, Michi­gan and Penn­syl­va­nia.

In­evitably, stu­dents of cam­paign his­tory search for par­al­lels, and there are two midterms that come up most of­ten these days.

The first is 1994, the last time Repub­li­cans rode such awave of mass dis­con­tent to win con­trol of Congress. Then, too, there was an em­bat­tled Demo­crat in the White House, but Clin­ton man­aged to win re­elec­tion by mov­ing to the mid­dle and cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the mis­steps of an over­reach­ing GOP. Repub­li­cans say they learned their les­son and won’t re­peat that mis­take.

The more in­trigu­ing ex­am­ple may be 1982, when un­em­ploy­ment was 10.8% on elec­tion day (a full per­cent­age point above to­day’s job­less rate) and the pres­i­dent’s ap­proval was near 40% (Obama’s is about 45%). Democrats won 26 House seats and many pegged Rea­gan as a one-term pres­i­dent.

His ap­proval sank to 35% be­fore spring­ing back and climb­ing through­out 1983. The main rea­son was a strong eco­nomic re­cov­ery, which buoyed Rea­gan to a land­slide re­elec­tion.

“To­day, vot­ers are mad at the peo­ple in power,” said strate­gist Stu­art Spencer, who was at Rea­gan’s side vir­tu­ally through­out his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. “They get a job, they get a reg­u­lar pay­check, they’ll look at the world dif­fer­ently.”

That said, Spencer sug­gested some dif­fer­ences.

“Rea­gan picked his spots to fight. He picked his spots to ap­pear on TV. [Obama] is on ev­ery night on ev­ery sub­ject in ev­ery place of the world. They didn’t get tired of Rea­gan,” Spencer said. “They could get tired of this guy.”

More im­por­tantly, Spencer said, Rea­gan’s sunny con­ser­vatism was fun­da­men­tally in sync with the di­rec­tion Amer­ica was headed: “He re­flected a time and place in this coun­try as well as any guy I’ve ever seen.”

Obama has worked hard to re­verse the course of Rea­gan­ism, in fa­vor of a more ex­pan­sive fed­eral govern­ment. The back­lash has been fierce. But the ul­ti­mate ver­dict won’t come un­til 2012.

Ron Sachs

OBAMA A GOP takeover could be a po­lit­i­cal bless­ing.

Danny Johnston

CLIN­TON He also won a sec­ond term af­ter such losses.

Fred Prouser

REA­GAN He won re­elec­tion af­ter con­gres­sional losses.

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