As the US summer holidays draw to a close, November’s midterm elections drift back to centre stage and pundits look to models of what voting trends may tell us about the national mood in the world’s superpower. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Most Americans are now enjoying the last week of their summer vacation with a final trip to the beach, a family barbeque, or at least a picnic in the park – even if their economic circumstances have been difficult. Next Monday is Labour Day, the traditional end of summer and the beginning of autumn for Americans (although the northern hemisphere’s autumnal equinox actually is still three weeks away). The baseball season is about to enter its final month, and high school, university and professional football (American style) is just starting up. Most of the country’s schools are about to begin the new school year and businesses are even gearing up for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays a few months away.
And, when it is an election year, as this year is, Americans are turning their attention to the ongoing political campaigns as well. True, people who are thoroughly committed to the political universe, like media commentators and professional political operatives have been paying obsessive attention to the primary elections since spring, but the majority of American citizens are only now beginning to take a serious look at the races and the candidates. Voter turnout in primary elections is almost always but a small fraction of the overall voting population.
Although 2010 is not a presidential election year, the primaries still determine party nominees for the full membership – all 435 of them – of the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, several dozen governors, and thousands of other state, county and local officials. Following the American political calendar, these primary elections have just about been wrapped up, except for a few states like New Hampshire. As a result, virtually all of the respective Democratic and Republican candidates have now been decided and the ballots are at the printers. Some contests, however, will be enlivened by the presence of independent candidates, as in Florida where Charlie Crist, currently the state’s Republican governor, aims to become its new senator sans political party identification.
Elections for the House of Representatives are likely to produce a Democratic congress – albeit one with a sharply lower majority. Governor and state legislative elections have relatively little international impact, but this year, being a 10-year census year, with population shifts in the country, redefining districts for House of Representatives seats will follow and party control of state legislatures and governorships will determine who redraws the congressional districts – and that can dramatically affect who can get elected in two years’ time.
With the election this year just two months away, sophisticated computer modelling, as well as common sense, says the Democrats run the risk of losing their Senate majority. At the very least, their majority in the 100-member body will end up sufficiently shrunken that they will be hard-pressed to pass the kind of major legislative initiatives – the stimulus package, financial regulatory reform, and healthcare reform – that have marked Barack Obama’s first two years as president.
In this election cycle, more than most possible 2012 presidential candidates, ex-Alaska governor (and Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008) Sarah Palin carried out a broad national effort to support selected candidates and bank the kind of political due bills that can be cashed in, should she actually make a run for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. Two-thirds of the candidates (at the local, state and federal levels) she endorsed – or campaigned for – have won the right to run against Democrat candidates in November.
Although 2010 has been called a year of revolt against incumbents, and many have not survived the primaries, long-serving politicians like Nevada Democratic senator Harry Reid and Arizona Republican senator John McCain finally made it through the primaries. Regardless, if current predictions are correct, the net loss of Democratic office bearers will weaken Barack Obama’s political power, influence and manoeuvrability.
Although even the most sophisticated modelling still needs to take into consideration the fact that unanticipated events between now and November can influence election results, according to The New York Times’ elections model, Democrats have a 20% chance of losing 10 or more seats in the Senate. That would equal the loss of control of the Senate to the Republicans, unless Florida’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist, beats both his Republican and Democratic challengers and then agrees to caucus with the Democrats.
Photo: Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R) waits alongside Florida first lady Carole Crist before announcing that he will run as an independent for U.S. Senate during a news conference in St. Petersburg, Florida April 29, 2010. Crist announced his bid on Thursday, breaking ranks with his Republican party and setting the stage for a close congressional race in the battleground state. REUTERS/Scott Audette
Crist will face Cuban-American politician Marco Rubio and African-American Kendrick Meek for the Republicans and Democrats respectively. Crist may actually win – in recent weeks, Rubio has been hamstrung by his awkward explanations of his views on immigration and Meek has been trying to paint himself as an outsider despite already being a congressman and the son of another. According to the NYT model, there is also a one-in-10 chance the Democrats will lose nine seats, giving them just 50 votes in the 100-member body. In this circumstance, they would still have to hold onto the wavering loyalties of centrists like independent (but caucusing with the Democrats) senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut or conservative Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska to retain control of the Senate.
The model indicates that the most likely result will be a net loss by Democrats of six or seven seats, leaving them with a slender margin of 52 or 53 seats. This is sufficient to maintain control over the organisation of the senate, but it will make it very difficult to pass even mildly controversial legislation or to break Republican filibusters on legislation without gaining support from about 10 members of the Republican caucus. As a general pattern, some more conservative Democrats almost always defect from the party’s position on any given vote to support Republican positions, as the senate has no strict party discipline in voting.
Analysts say the real key for the Democrats’ chances are probably not high-profile Senate races where the Republicans have nominated thoroughly inexperienced, or even more thoroughly weird, headline-grabbing candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada or Rand Paul in Kentucky. Rather, the Democrats’ sharpest challenge comes in swing states like Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania where centrist, mainstream Democratic candidates like Lee Fisher, Joe Sestak, Robin Carnahan and Paul Hodes have, so far, been unable to gain leads in pre-general election polling. Historically, support deficits as small as 5% become increasingly difficult to overcome in elections like 2010 where relatively few really undecided voters remain to be corralled by this time in the campaign.
And although this year has been labelled the year of “the outsider”, in states like Missouri and Ohio where long-time Republicans like Chris Bond and George Voinovich are retiring, staunch Republican establishment figures like congressman Roy Blunt and former congressman and Bush administration veteran Rob Portman have nevertheless captured their party’s nominations. But Democrats must become competitive in states like Missouri and Ohio if they hope to offset almost certain losses in a clutch of seats they have held for years in North Dakota, Arkansas, Indiana – and even Delaware (Joe Biden’s home state).
But polling only takes us so far. Americans actually need to have the election – and outcomes remain hard to predict in races in California, Washington and Wisconsin. In those three states, incumbent, but vulnerable Democrats like California’s Barbara Boxer, Washington’s Patty Murray and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin are in the fights for their respective political futures.
But, even with these predicted Republican gains, that party’s goal for full control in the Senate is still a difficult one to achieve. While there are 29 Senate contests in which the Republicans have a chance to win, they need to pull it off in 28 of these to have a lock on a senate majority in 2011. Put another way, they must gain virtually all the currently Democratic-held seats and successfully defend virtually all of their own seats that are up for grabs this year. But because elections can simultaneously be referendums on national issues, local issues – and even on the personal characteristics of the candidates – even a national trend is not a totally infallible guide for each race. For Republicans in Florida, Kentucky and North Carolina, for example, their candidates are vulnerable, even if national trends clearly point away from the Democrats.
Of course, overlaying everything this year are two big trends. First is a persistent national climate of discontent about the economy and persistent unemployment still hovering near 10%. This gives a negative texture to the electorate’s view of incumbents generally and to Democrats in particular, since they are the ones now in charge.
For many disaffected voters, the 2009 economic stimulus package and the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) have been particularly irksome. Many voters are extremely unhappy about the help given to faltering companies and banks (even though banking bailouts were actually authorised in the Bush administration) versus a perceived lack of support for the newly unemployed, struggling everyman with his now-delinquent mortgage bond. Although the Obama administration can point to a long list of legislative successes and foreign policy initiatives, disaffected voters don’t agree that many of these were successes. Moreover, according to polling data, and historical experience more generally, it is the economy that remains the key issue. If you are a Democrat, that can’t be good news.
The second key trend for 2010 has been the rise of the “Tea Party” movement that taps into the above-noted discontent as well as other themes. This Tea Party movement draws upon the whole range of traditional right-wing discontents as well as anger over continuing undocumented/illegal immigration, and a deep, near-visceral opposition to Barack Obama personally – and even the very legitimacy of Barack Obama being president – or even a citizen. Tea Party activists – in tandem with Fox News TV, right-wing Internet bloggers and those ubiquitous “hatecasters” like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity – have all been supporting efforts to have Tea Party sympathisers become Republican Party nominees for the upcoming election. And in some primaries, in this push, they’ve been successful.
Beyond trying to drive the issues agenda in this primary election season (and then for the general election in November), Tea Party activists are beginning to do what ideologically based movements have done historically in American politics – now they are trying to become the default DNA of an established party – in this case, the Republicans.
Political consultant teams like those in the organisation, FreedomWorks, have been running sophisticated political “boot camps” for Tea Party political wannabes. One of these training camps coincided with the Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin demonstration in Washington, the so-called rally for a religious rebirth, that drew somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 people (depending who you believe) for a weekend rally at the Lincoln Memorial. This spot has been a traditional rallying point for civil rights and anti-war demonstrations for more than 50 years – including Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic 1963 “March on Washington”.
The New York Times offered an in-depth examination of how FreedomWorks trainees are gaining an understanding of the basics, as well as high-tech political operations. For example, according to the report, when doing door-to-door canvassing – the real lifeblood of every political campaign, everywhere – trainees must learn to:
“…Look for houses with flags, they are instructed; their residents tend to be patriotic conservatives. Marine flags or religious symbols, ditto. Take doggie treats with you as you canvass neighbourhoods — ‘Now they are your best friend; it’s dog person to dog person.’ Don’t just hand out yard signs and bumper stickers for your candidate — offer to plant them on the lawn or paste them on the bumper (front driver’s side works best). Follow up with thank you notes, the handwritten kind. Be polite, and don’t take rejection personally: ‘Remember, it’s for freedom!’
“…. For 18 months, the group’s young staff has been conducting training sessions like this one across the country, in hotel conference rooms or basements of bars, shaping the inchoate anger of the Tea Party with its libertarian ideology and leftist organizing tactics.
“….FreedomWorks’s pitch to activists is that the money is not really the point. It is about convincing friends, neighbours and strangers in Congressional districts where 100 or 1,000 votes can make all the difference.”
Freedom Works and other, similar groups – and the trainees they have trained – are starting to draw together with people like broadcaster Glenn Beck to shape a rightwing version of the same community organising model (remember, that was Barack Obama’s early calling) so derided by Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential race.
Tea Party-ers gained much of the credit earlier this year for Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts in capturing the senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for almost half a century, to gain Mike Lee the Republican nomination in Utah after they had deposed long-term incumbent Republican senator Robert Bennett, and now, most recently, the apparent victory of Joe Miller over Lisa Murkowski in Alaska (although there are still thousands of absentee ballots to be counted). Groups like FreedomWorks are now focusing their attentions on those crucial senate races in Florida, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as targeting liberal Republican senator Olympia Snowe in Maine in 2012 as punishment for occasionally failing to toe the Republican Party line.
If the state of the economy doesn’t do a 180° turn in the next 60 days and if the Republicans come close to a senate majority, the Obama administration’s ride over the next two years is going to be a lot bumpier than it has been so far. The rallying cry that inspired his supporters in 2008, “Yes we can,” may end up sounding a lot more like “Well, maybe we might”.
For more, read The New York Times 538 blog, an explanation of the blog, The New York Times Opinionator blog, The New York Times, The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, The Washington Post, The Washington Post, AP, BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, The Economist.
Main photo: U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) celebrates his Republican primary win with his wife Cindy McCain as he speaks at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona August 24, 2010. McCain, who is seeking a fifth term in the Senate, defeated his challenger, former congressman and radio personality J.D. Hayworth for the general election nomination. REUTERS/Joshua Lott
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