It's Not Over Until It's Over

Recently the attention of the Washington punditry has focused on the possibility of Republican gains in next year's midterm elections. This focus stems from the release of several polls suggesting movement toward the GOP on the so-called "generic ballot" question measuring the intention of survey respondents to vote for or prefer the congressional candidates of one party over the other. An article by the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, headlined "The Generic Ballot, 2010, and a Republican resurgence?" neatly summarizes the issue. But, at this point, 15 months before the elections, the answer to Cillizza's question is neither clear nor obvious.

In fact, even the relative strength of the two parties on the generic ballot question is far from certain. Rasmussen, which consistently has the greatest Republican tilt in its results of any public polling firm, gives the GOP a 5-percentage point edge on its generic ballot question. The Daily Kos weekly tracking survey, which leans toward the Democrats in its findings about as consistently as Rasmussen does toward the Republicans, shows the Democrats with a 10-point margin. Falling in between are surveys conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff for NBC and the Wall Street Journal and Stan Greenberg for NPR. The Hart-McInturff survey gives the Democrats a 46% to 39% lead. Greenberg portrays the race as essentially even, giving the GOP a statistically insignificant 43% vs. 42% edge.

So where does the contest really stand? On the one hand, as the party out-of-power in both elective branches of the national government, history should help the Republicans. On the other, recent changes in the demography, attitudes, and identifications of the electorate suggest that Democrats may be in better shape to withstand the GOP assault than incumbent parties often are. We can't be sure yet exactly how these strengths and weaknesses will be arrayed in the months ahead, but we do have a clear picture of the advantages and disadvantages of the two parties going forward.

Republican Advantages

  • History. The GOP does have history on its side. Parties positioned as the Republicans are now, controlling neither the White House nor Congress, almost invariably add congressional seats in midterm elections. Only twice since 1900 has the president's party made gains in the first midterm election of his administration-1934 and 2002. In the former, the electorate endorsed Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal economic policies and the Democrats gained 9 seats in the House. In the latter, in response to George W. Bush's leadership after 9/11 the GOP picked up 8 new House seats. Nate Silver points out that since World War II the president's party has lost an average of 24 House seats in midterm elections. Stuart Rothenberg says that such averages are meaningless because they disguise major variations in results. Regardless, midterm gains by the "out" party are the rule. If history is a guide, the GOP should be in position to retake some of the congressional seats it lost in 2006 and 2008.
  • The Democrats have more ground and rougher terrain to defend than the Republicans. The Democrats gained more than 50 House seats in 2006, 2008, and subsequent off year elections. Many of these were in Midwestern and Southern rural and small town districts that frequently preferred Republican presidential candidates in previous elections. Of the 256 House districts currently held by Democrats, John McCain carried nearly one in five (49) in 2008, winning 23 by greater than 10-percentage points. The members who represent such districts are likely to be most vulnerable to GOP challenges next year and would benefit from a successful Obama presidency. But these numbers do explain the reticence of many moderate and conservative Democrats to wholeheartedly support the president's program.
  • Declines in President Obama's approval ratings. In six national surveys completed since July 26, Barack Obama's job approval rating averaged 55%. This is a slight uptick in his marks since mid-month and puts them right at the level Gallup uses to designate a presidential honeymoon. If Obama's approval marks stay at or just above that level through the end of the summer, they would give him one of the longer presidential honeymoons in Gallup Poll history. However, they would still be below the 65% level that Nate Silver's statistical calculations say would be necessary to avoid Democratic losses in 2010. Scientific survey research had not yet been developed in 1934, so it is impossible to know what FDR's approval rating was when the Democrats made their rare gains that year. But, George W. Bush's positive job performance mark was indeed that high when the GOP gained congressional seats in November 2002. The outcome of the 2010 midterm elections may ultimately hinge on how high Barack Obama's job approval ratings are in the months ahead. Fortunately for Democrats there are positive factors that could maintain the president's marks at a solid level.

Democratic Advantages

  • Demographic change. The U.S. population is very different than it was when the GOP made its congressional gains in 2002. These demographic changes work to the advantage of the Democratic Party. A new civic generation, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003 is emerging. Millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history. They comprised 17% of the electorate in 2008, as large a share of the vote as that of senior citizens, and will contribute 20% in 2010.  The American electorate is also increasingly diverse: greater than a quarter of the 2008 electorate was non-white, about double the percentage of just two or three decades earlier. These newcomers to the electorate are solidly Democratic. Millennials contributed 80% of Barack Obama's 2008 popular vote, identify as Democrats by a greater than 2:1 margin, and are the first generation in at least four to contain more self-perceive liberals than conservatives. Upwards of 90% of African-Americans and more than two-thirds of Latinos and Asians opted for Obama over John McCain last year. There is nothing to indicate that the strong Democratic loyalties of any of these expanding groups are diminishing. In the latest Daily Kos generic ballot, Millennials prefer the Democrats by 4.5:1. African-Americans do so by 8.5:1, Latinos by more than 2.6:1, and Asians by 3:1.
  • Changes in Party Identification. In 2002, when the Republicans made midterm history, the two parties were tied in party identification (43% each in Pew Research Center surveys). Now, in large part due to the demographic changes just described, the Democrats are clearly the majority party. Currently the Democratic edge is about 16 percentage points. Overall, a bit more than half of the electorate identifies with or leans to the Democrats while around a third are Republicans or lean to the GOP. The Daily Kos survey indicates that about 80% of both Democratic and Republican identifiers want to see the party they prefer win Congress in 2010. The Democratic Party's edge in party ID gives it a built-in electoral advantage that fully accounts for its 10-point lead in the Daily Kos poll.
  • Continued diminution of the GOP brand. While Barack Obama's job performance ratings may have drifted downward somewhat during the past several months, there is little to indicate that the appeal of the Republican Party has grown correspondingly over the same period. In the recent Hart-McInturff survey, voters held positive over negative impressions of the Democratic Party by a 42% vs. 37% margin. By contrast, their attitudes toward the GOP were 28% positive as opposed to 41% negative. As the following table indicates, things were even worse for the Republicans in the Daily Kos tracker, in which Republicans trailed their Democratic counterparts in favorable evaluations by margins of between 2 and 4:1. If they persist, these weaker perceptions of the GOP could limit Republican gains in 2010.

Percentage holding favorable attitudes toward each of the following


Barack Obama (D)


Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D)


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D)


GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R)


GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner (R)


Congressional Democrats


Congressional Republicans


Democratic Party


Republican Party


  • The potential for a continued economic turnaround. In the end, nothing is likely to drive the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections more than voter feelings about the economy. Recent surveys have pointed to improved attitudes about the current state of the economy and increased optimism about the future. A CBS poll indicates that since mid-July the percentage believing that the U.S. economy is getting better has increased from 21% to 32%; the percentage saying it was declining fell from 33% to 22%. As a result, the number believing that the country is now on the right track grew from 35% to 42%. Barack Obama gets some credit for this improvement. A majority (51%, up three points) now approves of his handling of the economy and by a 56% to 25% margin voters believe that the President rather than congressional Republicans is likely to make the right economic decisions. The electorate is increasingly confident about the future. A solid majority (57%) believe that the economic stimulus package passed into law earlier this year has or will create a substantial number of new jobs and a clear plurality (44% in the Hart-McInturff survey) expects the economy to be better in a year than it is now, a number that is up from 38% in April.

The 2010 midterm elections are still 15 months away and making political predictions this far out is risky business. History alone would point to the potential for Republican gains next year. But, a continuation of economic optimism, linked to its significant advantages in demographics, party identification, and party imagery, may position the Democratic Party to overcome the difficulties that an incumbent majority normally confronts. If so, the Democrats could surprise a few D.C. pundits and, along the way, create a little history of their own.