And the good news for Obama...

A statistical lifeline, of sorts.

In just under three weeks, America goes to the polls for the midterm elections. And whichever way you cut it, things aren't looking good for the President's party.

Polls of voting intention are showing the Republicans an average of six points up on the Democrats. Fivethirtyeight.com, a political forecasting site that came impressively close to predicting the election result in 2008, reckons that the Dems will lose control of the more than 30 seats in the House of Representatives, handing the chamber to the Republicans.

The party should just about keep its majority in the Senate; but there, too, it's likely to lose seven or eight seats, with such solidly blue territory as Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin looking likely to fall.

The president's people know they're in trouble. Obama, his wife and vice president Joe Biden are all doing the obligatory tour of town halls and rallies in small town America to drum up support, and the begging emails from the Organising for America campaign group have been increasing in both frequency and hysteria. (One dropped into my inbox yesterday morning, apparently from the president himself, bearing the exciting subject line "I want to meet Jonn". This was momentarily flattering, until I realised this offer was only open if I paid for the privilege, and even then I'd have to take part in a lottery first. Cheek of it.)

But still, anything other than retaining control of both Houses of Congress is going to look like a defeat for the president. And that is not going to happen.

I don't want to underplay the effect that a Republic victory would have; it will, after all, make it much, much harder for President Obama to implement his preferred policies on everything from healthcare to the deficit.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to assume that a defeat now means a Republican president in 2012. Think back to 1994, the last time the Republicans retook Congress in a revolt against a Democratic president. That was a landslide - the so-called Gingrich revolution, when eight Senate seats and 54 House ones fell to the red team. Two years later, though, Bill Clinton won a second term. It wasn't even close.

In fact, look back through history, and it's clear that a midterm defeat for the governing party is actually the norm. The opposition to the president's party "won" the midterms against Reagan in 1982, Nixon in 1970, Eisenhower in 1954, Truman in 1946... All of them went on the win the next election.

It's far more unusual, in fact, for the governing party to win the midterms. The Republicans did so in 2002, but that was largely off the back of 9/11. Before that, to find a two-term president whose party won his first midterms, you have to go all the way back to 1934, when there was another national crisis to worry about. So while a Democratic defeat on November 2nd does mean that the electorate is angry with Obama, that doesn't necessarily mean they won't re-elect him in two years time.

Of course, one-term presidents, too, have a tendency to lose the midterms. But the president's electoral prospects will depend on a lot more than what happens on 2 November. After the election, the pundits will start telling you he's finished. Don't believe a word of it.

Jonn Elledge is a London-based journalist. In autumn 2008 he wrote the New Statesman's US election blog.

 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle