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Handicapping the 2010 Election: The Five Biggest Mysteries

3 years ago
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Fifteen weeks until the election, political prophets are peddling the kind of glib certainty about the future normally found at an astrologer's convention.

From Joe Biden ("I don't think the losses are going to be bad at all") to House Republican Rep. Pete Sessions ("We will be slightly over 40") forecasting a GOP majority on NBC's "Meet the Press," each predictable partisan prediction is treated with the gravity of a pronouncement from the Oracle at Delphi.

Respected non-partisan political analysts like Charlie Cook are declaring, "Democrats could lose the House if the election were held today with exactly the circumstances that exist today." And University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato hosts a website "Sabato's Crystal Ball" that ballyhoos its current projections: GOP pickups of precisely 32 House seats and 7 Senate seats. (Republicans need to win 39 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate to control either chamber).

Our all-talk-little-thought media culture has scant patience for actual events like elections -- by the time flesh-and-blood voters go to the polls on Nov. 2, everyone's attention will already be fixated on the 2012 presidential primaries. While the more cautious analysts footnote their predictions with the caveat "if the elections were held today," such hedge phrases are sloughed off like the motor-mouthed recital of possible side effects at the end of a drug commercial.

In truth, the congressional elections are still far enough in the future for the political landscape to be reshaped by the powerful bulldozer of unknowable events. One hundred days was long enough for Napoleon to escape Elba, assemble an army, reclaim his title as emperor of France and endure his final defeat at Waterloo. One hundred days was long enough for the newly elected Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Depression to create the New Deal. But in an era when information flows at a speed that makes Mercury seem flatfooted, we are treating the 2010 elections as if voters will be locked in a news-free isolation chamber until November.

Without conjuring up the chilling notion of another terrorist attack (the X-factor mentioned in all election forecasts since 2002) or a dramatic image makeover (Harry Reid rescuing a drowning kitten with TV cameras rolling), we still can be certain that aspects of the summer of 2010 will seem as dated as a Jane Fonda workout video by Election Day. Here are Five Known Unknowns (hat tip to Don Rumsfeld) that could play havoc with 2010 electoral predictions:

Changed Perceptions of the Economy

Nothing will make this a "morning in America" election for Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. (Next shocking revelation: Earth orbits sun). But it is easy to under-estimate how quickly public attitudes about the direction of the economy can shift.

Just about 100 days ago, in early April, a routine financial news story in The New York Times was headlined, "Why So Glum? Numbers Point to a Recovery." Another Times story captured the prevailing April optimism with this sentence: "The mood has gone from panicked to cautious, and now, as Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody'sEconomy.com put it, some consumers are 'almost a bit giddy.'" In late April, a CBS News/New York Times national poll even found that voters narrowly gave Obama a favorable rating for his handling of the economy.

In contrast, Obama's approval rating on the economy plunged to 40 percent in a recent CBS News poll. These days, the nation's water supply would have to be dosed with Prozac to produce a hint of giddy optimism among consumers or to lure Democrats, who gave up being giddy months ago, off their window ledges. But, despite downcast economic projections, the dominant theme in late October could be renewed recovery or double-dip recession. We will not know for sure until we see the final pre-election unemployment numbers, the Halloween weekend Dow Jones average and the fall global economic outlook in the wake of the Greek debt crisis.

The Immigration Wild Card

July 27 could turn out to be among the most important dates on this year's political calendar -- that is when the Arizona are-your-papers-in-order immigration law is slated to take effect. One hundred days ago, when it was still uncertain that Gov. Jan Brewer would sign the get-tough legislation, few imagined that this Arizona law would become a Rorschach test for national attitudes on immigration.

If the law is harshly enforced with TV news footage and YouTube videos highlighting examples of ethnic profiling and harassment of legal residents, the resulting furor could galvanize the Latino vote and increase Democratic turnout above expected levels in November. Conversely, the federal courts could halt enforcement of the law awaiting a judicial review likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court. In that case, Republican base voters joined by anti-immigration independents could have a new reason to revile the Obama administration and rally against perceived judicial activism.

Will the Oil Spill Remain a Gusher of an Issue?

BP's fouling of the Gulf of Mexico has been the second biggest news story of the year (topped only by the sputtering economy), according to content analysis by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. But if the oil spill has indeed been permanently capped (nothing is certain when it comes to BP these days), will that mean that Obama's slow initial response to the environmental catastrophe will fade as both a news story and a voting issue?

This is the kind of question that defies pollsters since voters themselves have no idea how they will feel in November. Factor in the uncertainties of the hurricane season plus the unknown pace of cleanup efforts -- and you have a tar ball of a political puzzle.

Do the Republicans Need a Message – and Will They Have One?

Most memories of the 1994 GOP landslide that brought Newt Gingrich to power overstress the importance of "The Contract With America" that nearly 200 Republican incumbents and candidates signed on the steps of the Capitol six weeks before the election. But the struggle dividing congressional Republicans and their consultants this year is between those who believe that merely shouting, "Obama! Pelosi! Liberal!" is enough and those who demand an affirmative program. As Gingrich himself told The Washington Post, "Consultants, in my opinion, are stupid. The least idea-oriented, most mindless campaign of simplistic slogans is a mindless idea."

Even if the Republicans can agree on a positive political vision for November (an iffy proposition), it will need to be a compelling message that can be communicated to the voters against the cacophony of 30-second attack ads and oppo-research vitriol. Gingrich was always a masterful showman and "The Contract With America" was built around internal House reforms that could be enacted despite the bitter opposition of a Democratic president in the White House.

That is a challenging standard for House Minority Leader John Boehner to match with his planned but still ill-defined "Commitment to America." For according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 26 percent of the voters have confidence in Republicans in Congress making "the right decisions for the country's future."

Who Will Actually Vote?

Most state polls, such as Rasmussen Reports, use a likely voter model to estimate who will actually go to the polls in November. But without plunging into the depths of bitter debates over polling methodology, it is an obvious truth that pollsters can more accurately gauge likely voters on the eve of the election than they can in mid-July. With statewide political reporters an endangered species because of newspaper cutbacks, these horse-race polls provide much of the grist for political debate in Washington and on television. The potential problem for armchair political analysts is that these July polls may provide a distorted picture of the 2010 electorate, especially if turnout patterns do not follow traditional norms.<br />
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There are other political uncertainties out there from the Tea Party's prospects in the remaining Senate primaries in states like Colorado to whether the Citizens United Supreme Court decision will lead to an October outpouring of corporate-sponsored political TV ads, which would be legal for the first time. The real-world world could further complicate political handicapping with everything from a foreign-policy crisis to an unexpected Obama administration scandal.

One hundred days is a lifetime in politics -- as Napoleon would be the first to attest. So follow the confident prognostications of TV pundits if that is your game. But just remember that no soothsayer has ever offered a money-back guarantee.

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31 Comments

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Jason

After reading a lot of posts, I keep coming across posts that refer to unpaid tax cuts. How is a tax cut unpaid for? Isn't the money I make mine? I wasn't aware that my money was the government's and that it was only letting me hold on to what it thought was fair. There is no such thing as an unpaid tax cut, if you believe that then you also believe that people should not be allowed to hold to more of what they make.

July 23 2010 at 6:52 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Eddie

THE GOVERNMENT HAS LOST THE RESPECT AND SUPPORT OF THE SENIORS , DISABLED AND RETIRED RAILROAD WORKERS. THEY CUT ALL THESE FOLKS FROM COLA AND STIMULUS THEN EXPECT THEM TO SUPPORT THEM. 92 MILLION CAN'T BE WRONG.

July 20 2010 at 10:22 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
Richard

i believe it was mark twain who said,when it comes to matters of polotics
and religion,humans have reasoning ability not above the monkeys

July 20 2010 at 10:18 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
alasusu

Obama's campaign team were geniuses of effective simplistic campaign slogans: "Yes We Can" was the most innocuous. However, it was also the most effective because people projected their own personal feelings onto the slogan's meaning which translated into positive results for the Obama campaign goals.

July 20 2010 at 10:08 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
JIM

no1topsobama, in reading your comment, I respectfully have to disagree with some of your thinking. You addressed extending unemployment benefits, as one example. I fully realize employment is currently a hugh problem in this Country. However, I am also fully aware that there are unemployed people out there that absolutely refuse to accept employment as long as the government keeps sending and extending their "entitlement" checks. I know, there is one in my own family who refuses to work just as long as the government keeps supporting him, his wife and children. i grew up in the era when success was achieved by hard work and long hours I remember wages of 50 cents per hour and 18 and 20 hour days. i didn't have a high school education, but I worked hard, learned through the school of hard knocks and have the first "entitlement" penney yet to be gotten from the federal or state governments. Other than social secure and medicare, which I do not consider "entitlements", as I paid for them through mandatory taxes all of my working life. Maybe if some of our unemployed citizens would start out by gracefully accepting some of the lower paying jobs available in this Country and working themselves up from there, they too someday might become successful and end up in one of the higher tax brackets which substantially contribute to "entitlements:.

July 20 2010 at 10:02 AM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
john&terry

Come november , maybe just maybe we can get real representation on capitol hilland end the partisan way of doing things The I know best whats good for you better then you days are over The politicians best listen up or you will join the rest of us aka unemployed

July 20 2010 at 9:57 AM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
brucedavisokc

We all need the go to the polls in November to tell the administration in Washington enough is enough..We can't keep borrowing from China to pay for things we we dont have money to pay for..We can't keep supporting "ILLEGAL" immigration. (what part of "ILLEGAL" don't we understand) Our constitution was was written with the word of God in mind, and we need to insure that it continues as our fore Fathers intended it. I fought for my counry, and being a Veteran I love my county.
It's time to take our country back so go to the poll's and tell Washington you have had "ENOUGH". God Bless You All

July 20 2010 at 9:39 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
phil ryan

It is encouraging to read these posts, not because of some of their viewpoints but because most of them show at least some grasp of what is currently going on in our country. It was nice to see someone refer to the clueless performance of the Republicans on meet the press -- someone was watching meet the press!!! Fact is Dems are going to have a hard time. The patience of the American electorate is about that of a 12 year old. The electorate largely ignored the warnings of Obama that it would take the first time of his presidency to fix this mess and concentrated on the change element of his speeches. Me? The fact is I think things are slowly getting better and I'm not going to let Republicans anywhere near grabbing hold of power so they can mess it up again -- as they surely will. I have a big problem with a party who sees no problem with racking up $700 billion in deficit spending -- not paid for spending -- on extending tax cuts for millionaires but balk at giving the unemployed extended unemployment benefits. The party of fiscal discipline of old has become the party of the 2 percent of this country. The rich and the corporations. And I'm gonna gag if I read we have to give it to the rich because then it will trickle down to us. It did not happen once in Bush's terms and in fact has NEVER happened.

July 20 2010 at 9:11 AM Report abuse -10 rate up rate down Reply
dacharrons

Listen, Ladies and gentelmen. What this country really needs is REAL People who live REAL lives in control of this country. We all want to help one another but we all want to see ourseleves and our children better off than we are today. Democrat or republican if they dont want to hear what we the people want or need "THROW THE BUM"S OUT". None of them have a clue what it means to live paycheck to paycheck. So why they have the right to talk about us like they are our best friend's is truly unconcievable.

July 20 2010 at 9:09 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dacharrons's comment
ettu

You are correct, but unfortunately, you practically have to be a billionaire to run for office in this country........or you need to have the connections with the powerful. That is why we need to go to INDIVIDUAL TAXPAYER campaign funding. Eliminates all the special interest groups, corps, unions, lobbyists, etc. It will limit candidates funding (of course, if you are already a wealthy person, you will again have an advantage, but not as much as previously)and it will require them to be more prudent on how they spend the money......attack ads, or getting the word out about your own qualifications and ideas about running the country. It will then allow some of the "REAL PEOPLE" to get their names on the ballots, and have a shot at going to work for the people.

July 29 2010 at 10:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Truwriter

Well its about time we stepped back and looked at this most bizarre election. Obama ran against Bush and not McCain but McCain was nothing like Bush so we elected a President based on just the great sport of bashing Bush. And we ended up with something that is probably a lot less than McCain. I voted for Obama and I really was just like most AMericans, convinced that I really had to, that it was the thing to do..and whatever you do don't think about it. Obama has been....well really nothing..from his total dependence on teleprompters (meaning lack of candor, his inability to be bipartisan (Bush had a Dem Congress nearly his whole 8 yrs)to him exposing his real agendas, to his issuance of th most offshore oil peremits by any President let alone one who convinced the greenies that he was thier guy. We really need a working press, one that is willing to print the truth even when its not popular. Obama was not a very good candidate but he was the best story and the press would have it no other way. In rerospect I think the bashing of Palin (as a woman mostly..she is sooo stooopid) was appalling and has probably spawned her new found popularity. I went to see her in Washington PA just to heckle but she spoke and she was NOTHING like what the press was depicting and as days went on and I saw what the news/entertainment industry (there is no difference) was doing to her I realized that we were being taken for a ride. One year into Obama's administration millions have felt the same way. The press failed us. We need to have real informaton, not commentary on how people speak, or slurs that they are stupid women or that you really have to vote this way or you will be a racist...we need to have better informatoin to make informed choices. The failure in the election was the US Press and those smary little guys who call themselves journalists and pretend they are not just tabloid toads. Yeah those guys, they have a lot to do with where we are today.

July 20 2010 at 9:06 AM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply

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