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 since the party that doesn’t control either the White House or Congress, almost invariably adds 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. But, a continuation of economic optimism, linked to its significant advantages in demographics, party identification, and party image, 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.
The Daily Kos weekly tracking survey shows the Democrats with a 10-point margin on the so-called “generic Congressional ballot” question. The most recent NBC/WSJ poll puts the margin at seven percent. Meanwhile Stan Greenberg’s polling for NPR suggested Republicans actually had a slight edge, but that poll’s results were distorted by an oversampling of seniors (22%) as opposed to young Millennial voters (14%) when in fact the two age groups were represented equally (17%) in the electorate in 2008.
The significant changes that have occurred in the U.S. population since 2002 are often overlooked not only by survey researchers, but also by pundits attempting to make electoral predications. These demographic changes work to the advantage of the Democratic Party. The Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) is becoming an even more important part of the electorate and will represent 20% of all eligible voters in 2010. America is also increasingly diverse, with non-whites making up a quarter of the 2008 electorate, 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.
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 these demographic changes, the Democrats are clearly the majority party, with about a 16-percentage point edge. 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.
Nothing that has occurred so far this year has done much to improve the Republican brand GOP candidates will have to defend in 2010 either. In the recent NBC/WSJ 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. 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 to 1.
• Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s positive approval numbers beat those of her Republican counterpart, John Boehner, 34% to 13%.
• Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s approval rating was 32% compared to only 18% for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
• Congressional Democrats positive number of 41% swamped the generic Congressional Republican positive approval number of 10%.
• And the Democratic Party’s approval rating of 45% was dramatically better than the overall Republican Party rating of 19%.
These weaker perceptions of the GOP could limit Republican gains in 2010, especially if they run in direct opposition to President Obama who enjoys a 62% favorable rating in the same poll.
In the end, however, nothing is likely to drive the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections more than voter feelings about the economy. 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%. A majority (51%, up three points) now approves of Obama’s 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. A solid majority (57%) of Americans also 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 NBC/WSJ survey) expects the economy to be better in a year than it is now, a number that is up from 38% in April.
Democratic Congressional prospects in 2010 should continue to improve along with the economy as long as Democrats stay united behind President Obama and his policies. If that happens, 2010 could look more like 1934 than 1994.