Sean Trende, RealClearPolitic’s astute political analyst, conjured up a nightmare scenario for staff at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in his column today.
Trende argues that, if a series of hypotheticals come to pass, not only could the GOP fail to take control of the Senate, but the Democrats could gain seats in the chamber. It is the political equivalent of drawing inside straights three hands in a row, but, in theory at least, Trende’s scenario isn’t impossible.
Trende notes at the outset that conditions are currently favorable for a big Republican win in November. The map of contested Senate races, including many freshman Democrats who narrowly won election in Obama’s wave election in 2008, tilts considerably towards Republicans. Democrats are defending twice as many seats and retirements in South Dakota, West Virginia, Michigan and Iowa have expanded the map of possible Republican pick-ups.
For Democrats to beat expectations, several macro-factors would have to change. Obama’s poll numbers would have to rise from his current 43% approval rating. On the eve of the Republican rout in 2010, Obama’s numbers were better than they are today. At that time, he was “underwater,” with the proportion of voters disapproving of his performance 2.7 points higher than those who approved. Today, he is more than 8 points “underwater,” in the RCP average of polls.
On the eve of their second-term midterm elections, approval ratings for Clinton and Reagan were in the mid-60s and George W Bush’s approval was 38%. The President’s party gained seats in the first two cases, while the opposition took control of Congress in the latter.
A shift in Obama’s approval would require a significant improvement in the economy. Nothing in recent economic data suggests the kind of rebound that lifted Clinton and Reagan in their second terms. Interestingly, Obama’s approval rating on the eve of the 2010 midterm were similar to those Clinton and Reagan had in their first midterms. Each saw the opposition party gain a large number of seats in Congress. They regained their political position with strong economic growth. The odds of this happening for Obama are slim.
The Democrats would also need a sharp reversal in the public’s attitude about ObamaCare. The law has never been popular and, while its numbers are off their disastrous lows of last year, the public is still overwhelmingly negative towards it. It is possible that ObamaCare’s continued implementation doesn’t give rise to more negative, unintended consequences, or even that the public comes to believe the law “works,” but I would be reluctant to make that wager.
Even if these three things were to come to pass, which is possible, the resulting “all things being equal” scenario would still favor Republicans this fall. The map, and the likely composition of the midterm electorate, still favor Republicans to pick up at least a few seats.
For the Democrats to gain seats would require a level of campaign incompetence and missteps that seems beyond even the Republican party. While the party is prone to abandoning its advantages and engage in knife-fights over narrow issues of the Democrats’ choosing, i.e. “war on woman,” the fall campaigns will largely be fought on deep-Republican turf. It would take a platoon of Todd Aiken-like candidates to squander the party’s built-in advantage.
Still, Trende’s analysis is worth considering, if for no other reason than for Republicans not to take victory in November for granted. It will be a very hard-fought campaign as the stakes for both parties are enormous. Trende’s argument could be a smart early hedge that no one will remember in the fall, but would look very prescient if disasters strikes the Republicans. That doesn’t however, mean that it isn’t possible.
There is a reason we have campaigns, rather than just awarding victories based on polls. Even if the wind is at your back, you still have to actually cross the finish line.