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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”