The Public Eye: Forecasting the 2010 Midterm Elections

By Bob Burnett
Sunday May 30, 2010 - 02:56:00 PM

Less than six months out from the November 2nd US midterm elections, pundits continue to predict that Republicans will reduce Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, perhaps take control of the House. Seven factors will determine the final outcome. 

First, the economy will play an important role. While most Americans feel the economy has stabilized, there remains a great deal of apprehension. Although 55 percent of recent poll respondents feel the US is headed in the wrong direction, most trust Democrats more than Republicans to address jobs and the economy. 

Nonetheless, if US unemployment remains in the nine percent range, this will hurt Democratic candidates. And, that’s probably going to be the case; economicrecovery is not going to be rapid, due to the fact that small businesses aren’t hiring – a situation the Obama Administration is trying to get Congress to address. 

Second, many pundits believe the election will be a referendum on President Obama. At this point, Obama is like Ronald Reagan in that voters like him personally more than they like his specific policies. The President’s favorability ratings exceed his unfavorable scores by a twelve-point margin; however, his job approval ratings show an even split. 

Third, Congress is much more unpopular than is the President. The latest polls indicate that 65-75 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. But there is dissatisfaction with both Parties; in voters’ eyes Democrats and Republicans share the blame and voters split on whether to support a generic Democrat or Republican on November 2nd. 

There is an anti-incumbent mood in the country. A recent Pew Research Poll found that 27 percent of respondents were unlikely to vote for an incumbent candidate. And there is continuing anger over the bailouts. The same poll found that 49 percent of respondents were less likely to vote for a candidate if they had voted for “providing major loans to banks during the 2008 financial crisis" 

Fourth, the Tea Party Movement is impacting the Republican Party. An ABC News/Washington Post poll indicated that 27 percent of respondents supported the Tea Party movement – although opinions differed about what this movement represented. In the past several weeks we’ve seen Tea Party activists play a major role in Republican primaries in Utah and Kentucky. Some of the Tea Party candidates represent radical positions, such as getting rid of Social Security and Medicare, and it remains to be seen how well this will play in a general election. 

Fifth, non-political events could affect the November 2nd outcome. 2010 has already seen a failed attempt to ignite a massive bomb in Times Square, the disruption of transatlantic air traffic by ashes from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, depression of the international economy by economic turmoil in Greece, and a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Another event – the capture of Osama bin Laden or the collapse of the global economy – could prove decisive. 

Nonetheless, as November 2nd draws closer, it seems more likely that how well Democrats and Republicans do will depend less on exogenous factors such as how voters feel about President Obama or the Tea Party movement, and more on endogenous considerations such as the relative financial strength of the Democratic and Republican Parties and the quality of their candidates. 

Sixth, Democrats have raised more money than Republicans. For example, at the end of April, DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) had $27.3M cash on hand compared to the NRCC's $11.4M. However, ROLLING STONE recently reported that Bush villains Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie are leading an independent fundraising effort to benefit Republican candidates. In some races the financial hand of Rove could prove to be decisive. 

Finally, even in a tumultuous year, what will be decisive is the quality of the Democratic and Republican candidates. For example, Democrats are prepared to cede a Senate seat in North Dakota, where Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan is retiring, because they don’t have a compelling candidate to compete with Republican John Hoeven. On the other hand, Oregon incumbent Democratic Senator Ron Wyden is expected to easily win reelection in November, because Republicans don’t have an effective candidate. But in Missouri, where Republican Senator Kit Bond is retiring, the competition is expected to be very close; the prospective opponents will likely be Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and archconservative Republican Congressman Roy Blunt. 

On November 2nd it’s probable that Democrats will lose seats in the House and Senate but still retain control of both bodies. Voters are angry, but their anger is diffuse, directed at incumbents in both Parties. There’s unlikely to be a strong tide that will carry sweep Republicans into power across the country. 

The wild card is the economy and, more generally, unforeseen catastrophic events. In a strange year, there’s an unusual amount of uncertainty in the election. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at