Charlie Cook sexes up the obvious: Dems to lose seats

Do Democrats' struggles now predict doom in 2010?


Gabriel Winant
August 21, 2009 10:45PM (UTC)

It's been a bad few months for the Democrats. The president's approval rating has sunk from honeymoon highs to just about 50 percent. Healthcare reform has stalled dangerously, and members of the congressional majority are starting to think about 2010 and cast nervous glances over their shoulders.

That's the basic story we can probably all agree on. But just how bad is 2010 looking for the Democrats? Professional prognosticator Charlie Cook thinks he has an answer.

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Yesterday, Cook wrote a post on his Web site predicting a disastrous midterm election for the Democratic majority. Noting the president's weakening approval rating, Cook writes, "These data confirm anecdotal evidence, and our own view, that the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and Congressional Democrats."

Though his model for congressional election outcomes is now predicting a Democratic loss of six to 12 seats, Cook writes, "Our sense, factoring in macro-political dynamics, is that this is far too low." Cook now thinks there's an even over/under for a Democratic loss of 20 seats in the House.

There are a few things going on here. First, it's virtually a guarantee that Democrats will indeed lose seats in 2010. The president's party almost always does in midterm elections. (The lone modern counter-examples both happened under extraordinary circumstances: In 1998, the Democrats gained seats after the House impeached the president, while the 2002 race happened under the long shadow of September 11.)

Since World War II, the president's party has lost an average of 24 seats in the midterm races. But that number isn't necessarily all that informative. First, the number of seats in play has gradually declined over time, as the political identity of red and blue districts has hardened. Second, as Stu Rothenberg notes, mid-terms tend to either be huge, involving the loss of scores of seats, like 1994, or they tend to be tiny, involving just a few districts changing hands.

Fifteen months in advance, we have no way of telling which kind of midterm we're looking at. Cook thinks it's likelier to be the latter, and that it's the fault of the president and his party. He points out, "That all of this is happening against a backdrop of an economy that appears to be rebounding and a resurgent stock market underscores how much the President's and his party's legislative agenda have contributed to these poor poll numbers."

But, though the stalled healthcare process surely isn't helping the Democrats, this isn't an entirely fair claim. The economic rebound has just begun; its political effects won’t be felt for months. Hence, it's far from obvious just how the economy is going to shape the 2010 races, complicating any attempt to make a prediction more specific than "Democrats are likely to suffer a net loss."

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In addition to an economic rebound, it's possible to imagine a successful healthcare reform bill helping to stanch the bleeding somewhat. Barring massive surprises, we can probably safely agree with Cook that Democrats will lose seats. Just how many, so far in advance, is awfully hard to tell.


Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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