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Monday, August 30, 2010

For Democrats, A Year of Warning Signs Ignored

I have been arguing for many months that the 2010 midterms would be a devastating election for Democrats - not the typical midterm rout for the president's party but rather a political earthquake. The first real rumbles of the earthquake began in the Summer of 2009 when town hall protests over health reform became front page news. At the time, many in the traditional press and within the Democratic party leadership dismissed the protests and the protesters as the rantings of a vocal, uninformed, angry minority with little national significance.

Then came the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

New Jersey is a reliably Democratic state that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama, the President and Vice President nearly took up residence in the state to help incumbent John Corzine, but he lost to Chris Christie. No matter, the press and party officials declared - it was a local race and Corzine was a bad candidate - no national significance.

Virginia was once a reliably Republican state and hadn't voted for a Democrat for President since Johnson in 1964. Barack Obama won it by a comfortable margin in 2008 and suddenly Virginia was declared a swing state. In 2009 Creigh Deeds won the Democratic nomination for governor against Republican Bob McDonnell. Deeds was an experienced state senator and he ran a tough campaign for the nomination, defeating Terryy McAuliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee and Virginia congressman Brian Moran. Deeds won nearly 50% of the vote in that three way race - an impressive feat. In the general election, Deeds ran as a moderate and sought to portray McDonnell as an extremist, 1950s throwback, based entirely on a graduate thesis that McDonnell had written in college.  McDonnell won 59% to 41%.  No matter, the press and party officials declared - it was a local race and Deeds was a bad candidate - no national significance.

The health care debate continued into the fall and on Christmas Eve the US Senate passed a health reform bill in a strict party line vote. At the time, Pollster.com showed that the public opposed the bill by a 50% to 40% margin.  No problem, thought Democratic party leadership, people will eventually support the bill.

Then came Massachusetts... seemingly out of nowhere a little known Republican state senator by the name of Scott Brown defeated the Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakely to fill the U.S. Senate vacated by the late Ted Kennedy.  Coakley was an experience Massachusetts politician. She was the District Attorney of Middlesex County and in her 2006 campaign to become Attorney General she carried 73% of the vote. In the 2009 primary for the Democratic Senatorial nomination she topped a four person race receiving 47% of the vote. As the general election race tightened, President Obama came to the state to campaign for Coakley, but she lost to Brown 52% to 47%. No matter, the press and party officials declared - it was a local race and Coakley was a bad candidate, prone to gaffes - no national significance.

In late March, the Senate passed the House version of health reform - using the reconciliation process to circumvent an expected Republican filibuster. At the time, the public opposed the bill by a margin of 50% to 42%. No problem, thought Democratic party leadership, people will eventually support the bill.

During all of  this time - from Summer 2009 to late Spring 2010 - there were increasing indications that things were getting bad for Democrats. Charlie Cook's Political Report and Stuart Rothenberg's  Rothenberg Report were regularly updating House and Senate race rankings and an ominous trend was evident. With each new update, more Democratic House seats were in play and Republican seats seemed safer and safer. Then Democratic Senate seats were moving to the danger column. At the same time, and in no way unrelated, President Obama's approval rating was falling. In the Summer of 2009 the President's approval rating was hovering around 52% and his disapproval was about 40-42%. By the late Spring of 2010 he was even-up at 47%.
 
In April 2010, I wrote about a new Pew Poll that suggested a major shake-up was coming in November. I wrote then "2010 has the potential to be a wave election that will surpass 2006 and 2008 and rival 1958, 1974, and 1994." The Rothenberg Report listed 79 House seats in play and 68 were held by Democrats. It was in April that I first suggested that a GOP Senate was a real possibility. In May, I warned that low Democratic turn-out in primary elections was an ominous sign of things to come. In late June, after Republicans gained a rare, but now common, lead on the so-called generic ballot I wrote that an "Electoral Bloodbath" was coming. I noted that "Senate races that should be safe bets for Democrats in Washington, California, Oregon, and Illinois are all competitive or tied." Just this month I predicted that a GOP wave was coming and argued that a gain of 70 House seats and a Senate majority are both distinct possibilities. At that time, the Rothenberg Report listed 88 competitive Seats and 76 were held by Democrats. Rothenberg was also predicting GOP Senate gains of 5-8 seats.
 
Today, Al Hunt has declared the Democrat's Senate majority "In Danger." Charlie Cook has officially put the number of possible GOP House gains in a range that would mean reclaiming the House and recently offered this tidbit "there are a whopping 32 Democratic incumbents who have trailed GOP challengers in at least one public or private poll. At this point in 2006, there were only 11 Republican incumbents who trailed in at least one public or private poll, yet 22 went on to lose." And Mark Halperin, the Senior Political Analyst for Time magazine, Time.com, and MSNBC, recently predicted "Republicans are in a position to pick up as many as 60 seats." Meanwhile, the President's approval rating is in negative territory, the GOP continues to lead the generic ballot, and Pollster.com shows that opposition to health reform is at roughly the same level it was in December 2009 and March 2010.

For nearly a year, Democrats ignored the significant signs of a restless and unhappy electorate. Warnings in VA, NJ, and MA were dismissed. Legislation that was overwhelmingly opposed was passed  under less than admirable circumstances. The party now stands less than 70 days from the 2010 midterms and they are poised to pay a political price most closely aligned with the dramatic elections of 1974, 1994, and 2006. Don't be surprised if in January 2011 Republicans find themselves in control of the House, the Senate,  a majority of the Governorships, and the State Legislatures - a complete reversal from today and from what many were predicting the day after the election in 2008.

Democrats, and many analysts, made a significant error after the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. They became convinced that Americans were gravitating to the Democratic party and they assumed that the new allegiances were secure and not fleeting. It was an assumption based on an outdated understanding of mass based party attachment. A growing number of Americans no longer align themselves with party long term. They are perfectly comfortable voting Democrat in 2008 and Republican in 2010. (Republicans made a similar error after 2002 and 2004 - and may well again after 2010).

Even now, there is little indication that Democrats fully appreciate what is happening. Much as they thought to make excuses for the losses in NJ, VA, and MA they have sought to explain opposition to health reform, the President, and the party's overall agenda by looking outward rather than inward. As such, many defenders of the faith have taken to declaring that opposition to the party's agenda is driven by fear, hatred, and racism. The flaw in this argument being that Democrats are in dire straits because they have lost folks who previously voted for them - so for Democrats to be correct then these voters must have overcome their intolerant and racist tendencies in 2006 and 2008 but now Republicans or Tea Partiers have managed to fan the smoldering flames. It's hard to imagine how the Democrats hope to win over voters after spending months defaming them. Worse, if Democrats create a caricature of their opposition they will never take seriously the lessons of any electoral defeat and learn no lessons from the loss. Gallup reports today that Republicans have taken an historic 10 point lead on the generic ballot - bigotry and nativism are simply insufficient explanations of such significant developments.

Democrats thought that they had a foundation of popular support on which to build their policy priorities - they were wrong. They are now convinced that opposition to their agenda is based on economic anxiety and intolerance. Those who are desperately trying to paint this election as being driven by the economy are simply looking for convenient excuses and failing to recognize the substantial changes in the American political system and the growing disconnect between the electorate and the elected in recent decades.  These are crucial miscalculations. And at this late date, there is really nothing they can do to correct their errors or stop the coming wave.