Midterms no predictor for 2012
Even if the GOP does take Congress, that doesn’t spell doom for an Obama reelection.
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.
OBAMA A GOP takeover could be a political blessing.
CLINTON He also won a second term after such losses.
REAGAN He won reelection after congressional losses.