Waiting For A Wave That May Never Come

Claiming to be the "first independent analyst to push the argument that Democrats would likely suffer significantly higher midterm losses than average for the party in power," Charlie Cook now expresses some doubt about his prediction that 2010 will see a wave election similar to that of 1994 in which the Republican Party swept overwhelmingly to control of Congress. The primary cause of Cook's recent uncertainty is the results of last week's special election to fill the seat in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district left vacant by the death of 18-term Democratic Representative John Murtha. Murtha's legislative assistant, Mark Critz, won that election for the Democrats in a district considered ripe for a Republican takeover. Overwhelmingly populated by working class whites that have been trending away from the Democratic Party for decades, it was the only congressional district in the nation to vote for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 and Republican John McCain in 2008.

Cook and other inside-the-Beltway observers attributed the Critz win (the 11th consecutive Democratic victory in a special congressional election) to a large turnout of Democrats brought to the polls by a hotly contested U.S. Senate primary, a superior Democratic ground game and get-out-the-vote effort, and more appealing and persuasive TV advertising by Critz than his Republican opponent's. Undoubtedly, all of those factors contributed to what DC pundits saw as a Democratic upset.

But, what happened last week in Pennsylvania 12 might not be the upset that many in Washington believe it to be. That's because, as we have been saying in this space for the past year, 2010 is not 1994 and the chances of a   Republican wave building off shore are far lower now than they were then.

For one thing, the United States is a much different country demographically than it was in 1994. A decade and a half ago, over three quarters of Americans were white. That number has dropped to just over 60% now and is on the way to falling below 50% by the midcentury. In particular, the percentage of Latinos in the U.S. population has nearly doubled (from about 9% to 16%) over the same period. In addition, half of a new generation-Millennials (born 1982-2003), the largest and most diverse generation in American history-has joined the electorate.

All of these changes have worked to the advantage of the Democratic Party and are should continue to do so in the future. In NDN's February survey of the 21st century American electorate, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin (42% vs. 21%) and non-Caucasians did so by over 4:1 (57% vs. 14%). Women also strongly identified as Democrats (44% vs. 24% Republicans). By the way, the other half of the Millennial Generation, all those now under 18, already live in a world where whites are in the minority, promising an even larger Democratic edge in the future.

At least in part as a result of these major demographic changes, the Democratic Party now holds a clear lead among voters in party identification, something it did not have in 1994. In the most recent Pew national survey (pdf) released earlier this week, the Democrats enjoy a nine-percentage edge over the Republicans in party ID (45% vs. 36%). In 1994, the two parties were tied at 44% each and in 1995, the year after the GOP won control of Congress, more Americans identified with or leaned to the Republican Party than the Democrats (46% vs. 43%).

Moreover, while it is true that attitudes toward the Democratic Party have declined during 2010, contrary to 1994 the Republican Party is not seen as a viable alternative by most voters.  In 1994 favorable ratings of the Democratic Party fell in Pew's surveys from 61% when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 to 50% by the time of the midterm election. In that same time period, positive perceptions of the Republican Party increased dramatically from 46% to 67%. While Pew's March 2010 survey (pdf) showed Democrats with only a 40% favorable rating, down from 57% in the fall of 2008, positive attitudes toward the GOP also declined since President Barack Obama's election from 40% to 37%, still leaving the Democrats with a slight advantage.

These demographic changes and attitudinal configurations have put the Democratic Party in a stronger position now than in 1994 to hold off a possible Republican wave. Furthermore, as they have enacted major portions of the Obama agenda, Congressional Democrats have improved their standing in comparison to Republicans on the generic ballot since earlier this year. All of the public surveys conducted during the past week show the Democrats with at least a modest lead.  Over the last few months there has been a net shift of six-points toward the Democratic Party.

 

March/April Democratic Preference

March/April Republican Preference

May
Democratic Preference

May Republican Preference

Gallup

44%

48%

47%

46%

CNN

45%

49%

47%

46%

Quinnipiac

39%

44%

42%

36%

 Average

43%

47%

45%

43%

An examination of a few key findings from some recent polls shows why that shift has occurred.

First, while voters do not yet believe that America has returned yet to prosperity, there is a clear perception of progress.  In the Quinnipiac survey, the number believing that the nation's economy is getting better rose from 19% in April 2009 and 28% last December to 32% now. The belief that the economy is worsening is down from 32% to 24% over the same period. President Obama is getting some of the credit for the perceived improvement in the economy. His approval score for handling the economy is up from 39% in March 2010 to 44% currently. More specifically, the percentage approving of President Obama's performance in creating jobs has risen from a low of 34% last January to 40% in May.

Second, after a year of rancor, voters are increasingly positive about the Democratic health care reform plan that passed Congress and was signed by the president in March. According to a recent CBS News poll, approval of the plan rose from only 32% in early March to 43% in May. As a result, the president's approval rating for handling health care in the Quinnipiac poll has risen from a low of 35% in January and February to 45% now.

As proof that nothing succeeds like success, the perception of an improving economy and the increasingly positive reactions to the newly enacted health care reform law have led to the most favorable job approval scores for both the president and congressional Democrats this year. For most of 2010, in the Quinnipiac poll, a slightly greater percentage of voters disapproved than approved of the way President Obama was handling his job. But in May, for the first time since early February the president's approval score was in positive ground (48% approve vs. 43% disapprove). Over the same time frame, the job performance approval of congressional Democrats has gone up from 28% to 34%. By contrast, the approval score for congressional Republicans is down from a high of 34% in March to only 26% in May.

Of course, none of this should be taken as an indication that the road forward to November for the Democrats will be smooth and easy. Historically, during a president's first term his party suffers on average a midterm loss of about 25 seats in the House and half dozen in the Senate. Only once, in 1934 when voters overwhelmingly endorsed Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, did a president's party make first term midterm congressional gains. In addition, the enthusiasm and involvement of Democratic voters continues to trail that of Republicans, although the Democratic Party's legislative successes have lessened that gap over the past couple of months and continued progress on matters like financial and immigration reform should reduce it even further.

Still, in spite of the challenges ahead, the forecast of another Democratic election disaster like that of 1994 seems premature and unlikely in today's changed demographic and political environment. Those expecting a wave may well be left standing on the shore vainly waiting for a high tide that will never come.

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