Monday, June 24, 2013

Pipe Dreaming

Daily Kos cites a poll that says Democratic prospects for the 2014 midterms are looking better than previously expected. The poll, conducted by Democracy Corps, "suggests that Republicans are so incompetent that they genuinely risk losing control of the House."

The main reason for the optimism is a growing dissatisfaction among voters with Republican obstructionism. The Tea Party has so thoroughly damaged the GOP brand that even districts that tend to lean Republican are starting to trend into dangerous waters. The obsession with repealing Obamacare is starting to backfire as more and more voters have moved on to other, more important issues, like the economy.  The result is that, even in GOP-held districts, Democrats enjoy a 5-point favorability lead over their Republican counterparts.  Particularly troubling for Republicans is the fact that seniors are leaning Democrat this time around. There is also the possibility that key Democratic voting groups will turn out in numbers that will equal if not surpass those of 2012.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but my gut tells me that this poll has made a number of assumptions that are not likely to pan out.

The first is the dissatisfaction with Republican obstructionism or what I call Tea Party burn out. While nationally and even state wide, this is certainly true, we're talking about congressional districts here, or, more to the point, conservative congressional districts. The same forces that will likely thwart Steve King's chances at a Senate seat - namely that there are just way too many sane people in Iowa - will virtually guarantee him a landslide reelection to his House seat. Like birds tend to flock together, especially if they're cuckoo birds.

Then there's this issue of Obamacare. Again the temptation is to assume that just because a majority of voters believe it's time to turn the page, that this automatically translates into a Democratic advantage. I respectfully disagree. Districts that trend Republican will often stay that way regardless of any singular issue, even one as supposedly radioactive as Obamacare.  No matter how many times the House votes to repeal it, in the end, I predict this will have little impact here.

Now let's look at that favorability rating. While I'm impressed that Democrats hold a 5-point lead over Republicans overall, it's hard to imagine that many of these districts will flip in 2014. What this more than likely represents is an average, which means that Dems will pick off a few of the more vulnerable seats with the GOP holding the rest. And while it is reassuring to note that seniors are coming to their senses, even a 4-point lead is insufficient for a sea change.

But the biggest bone of contention I have is with the assumption - more like wishful thinking, I'd say - that key Democratic groups will equal or surpass 2012's turnout. In what parallel dimension is this a likely scenario? Virtually every pollster agrees that progressives tend to sit out midterms while conservatives - especially Tea Party conservatives - show up in record numbers. It is inconceivable that Democratic voters will even come close to the turnout of 2012, much less equal or surpass it. This is not being pessimistic; it's simply acknowledging the facts.

Look, if the House flips in next year's midterms, I'll do cart wheels. I'll also start buying lottery tickets. Consider that last year, Democrats netted eight House seats in what was otherwise a banner year. Barack Obama won in a landslide and they padded their majority in the Senate by two seats.

The last time Democrats netted gains in a midterm with a Democrat in the Oval office was 1998. And even in that election, which was more a referendum on Newt Gingrich, they managed to pick up a paltry five seats in the House. At best, they might duplicate that feat. 

The real problem for Democrats isn't the popular vote, but gerrymandering. Put simply, thanks to huge loses in the 2010 gubernatorial races, the GOP was able to redraw many districts that gave them a substantial leg up on Democrats. Even if 2014 ends up becoming a repeat of 2006 vote-wise - again highly unlikely - Republicans will still hold serve.

The only real hope I see will come via the state level where incumbent Republican governors face stiff challenges in their reelection bids. If Democrats can capture a few of those state houses, they can begin the process of undoing much of the built-in advantage the GOP holds in the House. That would allow for the possibility of an even playing field come 2016.

Until then, I wouldn't plan any victory parties just yet.


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