US & Canada

Why mid-term polls bode ill for Democrats

Democratic Party leaders
Image caption Despite Democrats' accomplishments, they will pay for being in power during a time of economic pain

With the US primaries season all but over, what have we learnt about what to expect in November's mid-term elections and beyond, asks Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.

Contrary to much of what you may read and hear, there is nothing special about the way 2010 is leaning. It is a classic message-sending mid-term election campaign held amid widespread economic anxiety and pain.

How could it be otherwise? With millions unemployed, millions more under-employed, a vicious recession in the recent past and a double-dip feared under way, people are focused on their bread and butter.

Even if Democrats are blameless for this state of affairs, they are the party in power. Voting against them is a logical, time-honoured response from weary, unhappy citizens who have run out of patience.

Whatever voters think of the Democrats' stimulus bill, healthcare reform and cap-and-trade effort, the main cause of the party's distress is not liberal legislation it promoted but simply that it is in charge when bad things are happening to the nation's economy.

Presidents like to believe that their work can tame the seas. But when fierce political winds build a towering wave, even a presidential-size yacht can be capsized.

President Barack Obama can raise money, draw crowds and TV cameras and create headlines for his favoured candidates. Here and there, smart moves by the White House might pull an endangered Democratic candidate to victory.

Mid-term snap-back

Conversely, as the Republican Senate primary showed in Delaware, less savvy moves by Republicans could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a few cases.

Had Congressman Mike Castle defeated Christine O'Donnell to become the Republican nominee, he would have been the favourite to add a Senate seat to the Republican column in November. Instead, previously little-known Democrat Chris Coons is likely to hold the seat for the Democrats.

Both Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint endorsed Ms O'Donnell, knowing full well that she would be likely to lose the seat in heavily Democratic Delaware. While this upset the party establishment, rank-and-file primary voters seemed content with the proposition.

In the big picture, though, the combination of persistent high unemployment, little income growth, a natural mid-term snap-back, intense enthusiasm among Republicans in a low-turnout election and big Democratic vulnerability after massive gains in 2006 and 2008 makes most everything else mere background noise.

We are headed for a major pendulum swing. Since World War II, the president's party has lost an average of 24 House seats and three to four Senate seats in mid-term elections. Count on a doubling of those numbers in 2010.

The most significant Democratic disasters will likely come at the state level. On the eve of congressional re-districting, Republicans will gain perhaps eight governorships, 400-500 state legislators and control of eight to 14 more state legislative chambers.

Image caption Bill Clinton (r) won re-election in 1996 in part due to a weak Republican challenger, Bob Dole (l)

It is a "check-and-balance" moment. Mr Obama will have to adapt to divided government - something Americans have ordered up for 36 of the past 60 years.

The good news for Mr Obama is that presidents often fight what is in their best political interests. Assuming decent economic growth before 2012, a rambunctious Republican Congress will give the president an institutional devil figure to blame and against which to run for re-election. The pendulum swings both ways, and increasingly quickly.

Goodness knows, the election will not signal that voters have fallen in love with the Republicans. Every poll shows that Americans don't like or trust either party right now.

Solace from predecessors

People don't want to reward the Democrats for what they see as the party's under-performance after over-promising on the economy. At the same time, most Americans have no desire to put the Tea Party-influenced Republicans in charge. They will let the parties fight it out in Washington DC by giving each side some turf.

Americans know what they are getting with split-party control. Since Dwight Eisenhower took the White House in 1952, one party has been fully in charge of the executive and legislative branches for just 20 of the 58 years.

Mr Obama was lucky enough to have swollen Democratic majorities for his first two years as president and he has legislative accomplishments to show for it. It is a good thing for him, too, because even if he serves two terms, the president will almost certainly never again have the party margins to do much.

Mr Obama can take some solace from his recent predecessors.

Ronald Reagan looked down and out as Republicans lost 26 House seats and seven governorships in 1982. Yet the sick economy came roaring back to health in 1984 and swept him to a second term with 58% of the popular vote.

Bill Clinton seemed to all the world like a one-term president after the Democrats lost an eye-popping 52 House seats, nine Senate seats and 10 governorships in 1994. An over-reaching Republican Congress, a better economy and a weak Republican White House candidate, Bob Dole, saved Mr Clinton in 1996.

Whether Mr Obama will be another one-term Jimmy Carter or George HW Bush or a two-term President Reagan or Clinton will not be known until long after this year's results are counted.

But the die is already cast for 2010. Millions of jobs are not going to magically appear in September and October and even a handful of races where weak Republican candidates torpedo the party's chances will not be enough to stem the coming tide.