Why Democrats will keep control of Congress in November

Not long ago, pundits told us the 2008 progressive revolution just might change the country’s political map for decades to come. Gosh, they got that wrong, didn’t they?

I suspect the latest round of media predictions — that a Tea Party Revolution could sweep Republicans into power in both houses of Congress come November — will soon earn a tombstone in the same graveyard of hyperbolic predictions gone awry.

In recent weeks, political pundits from Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report to Nate Silver and his political calculus for The New York Times have been feeding the insatiable 24-7 news cycle  with predictions that this November could bring a Democratic defeat of historic proportions. The predictions have echoed around the Internet so loudly that at times they seem self-fulfilling prophesy.

The only problem is that they’re more than likely wrong (which, even if true, everyone will have forgotten by January).

Yes, Democrats will lose seats in both houses this November. The economy remains a mess. We’re still mired in two wars. And the rabid ranting of right-wing pundits and politicos from Glenn Beck to Newt Gingrich have, sadly, scarred the Obama Administration (in fairness, Obama’s tentativeness and tendencies to seek compromise with the party of “no” haven’t helped his cause either).

But please. I’m not ready to accept that a majority of Americans are ready to embrace the nutty Tea Party movement no matter how fired up its base is and no matter how many primary victories it scores.  The outcome of the November 2010 Congressional election may come down to three words: “cast your ballot,” a mantra the Democratic Party will wield by pointing to candidates like Republican Delaware Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell, whose claim to fame includes running an organization, Saviors Alliance for Lifting the Truth, that pushed sexual abstinence so far as to speak out against masturbation.

True. If Americans sit home in record numbers, they will cede democracy to the wing nuts, rednecks and roll-back-the-clockers who seem to long for the bad old days of, say, segregationist 1952.  But if a reasonable number of Americans vote, we simply aren’t going to see the kind of wholesale changes pundits are predicting.

Here are a number of reasons why:

1. As unpopular as he may seem for a sitting president, Barack Obama, with positive popularity ratings of about 46 percent, is a lot more popular than most politicians in the United States. He’s also a very good campaigner, as he began to show last week in taking on “tax cuts for millionaires,” an extension of $700 billion in Bush tax cuts to those earning $250,000 or more. Polls have shown a significant majority of Americans oppose this tax cut extension, but Republicans have dug in their heels in insisting on it. That will prove a mistake.

2. The Tea Party movement has fractured the Republican Party. Oh, the party is trying to paper over the differences, but the astounding defeat of nine-term congressman and former Delaware Gov. Mike Castle in the Republican primary against O’Donnell will make that much harder.

Far right Tea Party candidates have won Republican nominations for the Senate in Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, Kentucky and Florida. Though some will win, I’ll bet Democrats hold Nevada and win in Delaware specifically because Republicans nominated Tea Party candidates to the right of America’s rather conservative mainstream. If defeated Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski runs a write-in campaign in Alaska, a Democrat might sneak in there as well, though it’s a predictably safe Republican state.

3. Incumbents historically have a big advantage in any race. Even though this is not an historically predictable year, it’s hard to imagine multiple-term Democratic Senate incumbents like Barbara Boxer (California), Harry Reid (Nevada) and Russ Feingold (Wisconsin) all losing, even though those races currently are all statistical dead heats. Much more likely is that all three of these Democrats will win.  I’ll bet that Democrats will win the Senate, probably with a reasonably comfortable 54-46 margin (I’ll cede Arkansas, North Dakota, Indiana and Colorado as Republican pickups.)

4. Fervent predictions that Republicans will pick up 40, 50 and even 60 seats in the House to control that chamber all point to the Republican revolution of 1994 midway through Bill Clinton’s first term, But unlike then, Democrats just took back control two years ago and unlike then, the party this time is well aware of the danger.

Will the country really blame Democrats for everything that’s gone wrong, given that the economy crashed before they took power? I don’t believe so.

Neither does the anonymous “Votemaster,” who runs the respected political web site www.electorate-vote.com, which tallies all races using state-by-state polling. On his site, he offers this explanation of why the Deomcrats face much better odds of keeping control in Noevember than most pundits suggest.

(1.) First off, for the past decade, the reelection rate for House incumbents not under indictment has been 94-98%. Even in the Republican wave year of 1994, 90% of all incumbents were reelected. Reasons for this effect include incumbents being better known and having more money than their challengers and having a track record of bringing home the bacon…

(2) Generic House polls currently favor the Republicans despite the fact that virtually every poll shows that even though the voters dislike the congressional Democrats by large margins, they dislike the Republicans even more.

Translation: Americans say they’re more likely to vote Republican. But they also say they dislike the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party. Hmmm.

Sorting through Congressional trends, and paying special attention to representatives who received more than 55 percent of the ballots cast in the last election, the Votemaster currently suggests that Democrats lead in 220 House seats, Republicans lead in 184 and 31 are tied. That math suggests that if the current equation holds, Democrats can lose every one of the 31 tied seats and still retain control of the House.

Trusting anonymous websites can be a dangerous practice. But as the Votemaster notes, he received 1 million hits a day during the last presidential election cycle so plenty of people take him seriously. As for his own politics, he writes,

I am a libertarian and lean towards the Democrats, but I have a lot of respect for traditional conservative Republicans like Sen. Barry Goldwater, who believed that what consenting adults do in private is none of the government’s business. Like Goldwater and also Bill Clinton, I believe in balancing the federal budget.

Despite my political preference, I have bent over backwards to be scrupulously honest about all the numbers, and have carefully designed the main page to be strictly nonpartisan.

I accept his explanation and agree with his calculus.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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