May 13th, 2010
Also published on The Huffington Post
According to some of our Republican colleagues, the Democrats’ electoral fate is already settled in 2010, and it ain’t lookin’ good. With a 30- or 40-seat Republican gain in the House now regarded as a conservative projection, and John Boehner salivating at the prospect of seizing Nancy Pelosi’s gavel, even my friend and fellow online politico Patrick Ruffini has sipped the Kool Aid, arguing that Republicans might be seating 70 new Congressmembers next year.
But not so fast: six months is an eternity in politics, and we can already see the outlines of a Democratic resurgence through the fog of spin and rhetoric. Most importantly, time is on the Democrats’ side; that, and a few good decisions. Not that I’m looking ahead to Democratic gains in the Fall, since we’re defending far too many marginal seats picked up in the wave of 2008, but I do see a more typical incumbent-party loss in the range of 20-30 seats in the House and a handful in the Senate. Here’s why:
The Times They Are a Changin’
Let’s start with the cold facts: three straight quarters of economic growth. Three months of job growth. A stabilizing housing market. The economy is slowly, painfully dragging itself out of the abyss, though the benefits have been slow to trickle down to the average American. But they’re taking even longer to trickle into the conventional political wisdom, as per usual. Just as many business analysts thought right before the recent crash that the good times would last forever, many political pundits seem to think that we’re still at the depths of last year’s crisis. People naturally tend to assume that things will continue to be as they have in the recent past, leaving us likely to miss an inflection point until it’s well in the past. In the political space, the groupthink mentality of cable news builds on this tendency even more, helping television talking heads miss changes happening right under their noses.
The economy matters — not only do pre-election conditions influence voting in almost any year, but since Barack Obama took office the hard times have fired up his opponents and demoralized his supporters. With more jobs popping up now and more people hopeful enough to return to the hunt (the good side of last month’s increased unemployment rate), plenty of the more marginal Tea Party fellow travelers might find their anger and fear slipping away. Plus, with an election to focus on rather than the nasty business of passing legislation, the Obama online army should be a lot more eager to get involved than they were during most of 2009. In other words, the much-discussed “enthusiasm gap” may be ephemeral.
The Health Care Fight is a Memory
A bad economy isn’t the only source of Democratic pain slipping into that good night; the terrible battle over health care is another. Yes, plenty of conservative activists will still be fired up about Obama’s “socialist” agenda, but with health care reform passed into law, they’ve lost the main focus of their ire. For one thing, the actual bill makes changes that are far less scary than the “death panels” and “health care rationing” that dominated conservative discourse last year, leaving Republicans little to yell “boo” over.
Plus, the real radicals went so far in their rhetoric that they made the final bill look innocuous by comparison, helping to undercut the power of scare tactics moving forward. And this is before the bill’s initial (and popular) changes have really gone into effect, something that should begin to encourage certain groups (parents of recent college graduates, for instance) to come around.
A House Divided
But the Tea Partiers haven’t gone away; they’re just haunting Republicans now. Loyal conservative Sen. Robert Bennett’s off the ballot in Utah, former Republican Charlie Crist is running for Senate as an independent in Florida, and the state Republican platform in Maine now features a plateful of conspiracy theory and crazy talk (Austrian economics, anyone?). Conservative and libertarian activists are on the warpath, and their most important targets may turn out to be Republican leaders seen as apostates from the cause.
The divisions aren’t limited to the grassroots, either, because the party’s big boys are squabbling amongst themselves as well. Karl Rove and other prominent Republicans have so little faith in party chair Michael Steele’s ability to run a competent political operation that they’ve created competing fundraising committees, the “527s” that promised so much and delivered so little for Democrats in 2004. With no ability to coordinate with candidates (at least legally), these outside groups are likely to waste money just as efficiently as Steele’s crew has managed to do so far.
Money will be important this year, but it’s not the only factor that counts in politics, since campaigning in general will still help determine who shows up to vote. That’s one reason that polls this far out are still relatively meaningless — if they were accurate and predictive, Ross Perot would have become president in 1992, since he led Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush solidly in early summer of that year. The Obama White House has focused on legislation so far, but that will change once Congress recesses and the President starts flying across the country full-time to raise money and rally the troops. Some early signs of the summer pivot are already visible, and they’re no doubt just the beginning — we’ll be hearing a lot more about Wall Street between now and November, for instance.
For an example of what we might expect from Obama’s direct involvement in Congressional campaigns, look at the difference he made on health care: though he stayed out of the fray for much of the fight (often to Democrats’ dismay), he campaigned ferociously at the critical moment when he could help push it over the top — and won. Anyone who doubts that he and his team will be thoroughly engaged in the campaign is forgetting the relentless candidate he turned out to be in 2008.
Do(ing) the Right Thing(s)
But while Obama will be busy in 2010, he won’t be everywhere: you’re not likely to see him standing next to Blanche Lincoln or any other incumbent running in a conservative area, for instance, just one sign of the fact that the Democrats seem to be doing the right things now to win in the Fall. They’re thinking strategically, putting resources into the places and activities that will make a difference, rather than rolling out shiny new initiatives that get media attention but that aren’t likely to yield many votes in November.
Dems have their eyes instead on the main prize — getting their voters (and only their voters) to the polls. Off-year elections are typically low-turnout, which puts a premium on identifying supporters and getting them off their duffs and actually voting. And as Chris Beam detailed in Slate a couple of weeks back, the Obama team is once again focusing on data-driven grassroots organizing, the kind of online-enabled real-world politicking that helped fuel his turnout surge in 2008. Email, SMS and phone calls will let the campaign reach its own supporters in relatively conservative areas without stirring up the Republican base, for example, while Democrats can use the same tools to boost attendance at rallies and public events on friendlier ground. Unlike television commercials, online outreach and online mobilization can be targeted with great precision, making them (as I’ve argued before) a perfect match for a low-turnout election, particularly when run by the heirs of a team with a track record of knowing how to use them.
No Sure Thing, and Plenty on the Line
Of course, there are no guarantees that my relatively rosy projections will come to pass, since of course Obama and the Democrats could break an axle on any number of potholes in the road to November. But it seems to match the underlying dynamics of the moment far better than Republicans’ rooted-in-2009, dire predictions of Democratic doom, though there’s no time to waste in mobilizing the Democratic base. Congress is one thing, but Democrats and Republicans will also be fighting for control of state legislatures across the country, and with it the chance to shape the post-census redistricting process. Redistricting is where the REAL rubber meets the political road, and who wins in 2010 will help to determine the shape of Congress and statehouses for a solid decade to follow. THAT’S a political prize worth fighting for, which makes me glad to see Democrats beginning to armor-up and prepare for battle.