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.