Changing narrative on midterm polls

Business Times - 25 May 2010

Changing narrative on midterm polls

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a clear advantage in the November election, at least for now


US CONGRESSIONAL and gubernatorial elections that take place at the end of the second year of a presidential term - midterm election - serve as a referendum on the performance of the sitting president and the incumbent political party.

History suggests that voters tend to 'punish' the party of the president during this election that takes place on Nov 2. Indeed, in the last 17 midterm elections, the president's party has lost an average of 28 seats in the House of Representatives, and an average four seats in the Senate.

The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that the coming midterm election - for 36 of the 100 seats in the Senate, for all the 435 seats in the House and for 37 gubernatorial races - will prove to be a major electoral blow to President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill who currently control both the House and the Senate, and who have been pursuing policies - the economic stimulus plan; healthcare reform; the bailout of the car industry - that have failed to win wide public support.

In fact, some pollsters point to depressing effects that the slow economic recovery and continuing high unemployment are having on American voters who seem to be in a very angry, populist mood. It reflects their growing pessimism about the nation's political and economic future.

And these pollsters have been predicting that the Democrats could end up losing their majorities in both Congressional chambers - sending a signal that Mr Obama could face major obstacles on his way to getting re-elected in 2012.

But it seems that outlines of this popular political narrative embraced by the media and the pundits - 'Obama and the Democrats Are in Big Trouble' - should be revised in the aftermath of the primary elections that were held last week, when voters selected some of the Republican and the Democratic candidates who will be running for office in November.

The primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas and other races demonstrated that Americans are indeed in a very nasty mood and that anti-Washington populism is on the rise - but that their anger is not directed necessarily against Mr Obama and the Democrats but against ALL politicians currently holding office.

Hence the new narrative emerging from these and earlier primaries may be that 'Americans Want to Throw ALL the Bums Out' - Democratic and Republicans bums, that is. They are seeking fresh faces and a change in leadership in Washington. Incumbents of both parties need to be aware. The voters want to replace incumbents with 'outsiders'.

The most shocking outcome of the primaries was the defeat in the Democratic primary race of Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who has served in the Senate for nearly three decades, and was regarded as one of the most respected political figures in Washington where he had started his public career during the administration of president John F Kennedy.

Mr Specter, who had switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party after the 2008 election, was endorsed by President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and most members of the Democratic establishment in Pennsylvania. Mr Specter lost his state's Democratic primary by a healthy margin to newcomer Representative Joe Sestak.

And that Mr Specter who tended to embrace centrist positions on most domestic and foreign policy issues lost the race to Mr Sestak who markets himself as a member of the left-oriented, progressive wing of the Democratic Party reflects the populist mood on the political left.

Another major surprise was the results of the Republican primary in Kentucky where Trey Grayson, who was considered to be the favourite of the Republican establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (also from Kentucky), was defeated by a large margin - 59 per cent to 35 per cent - by Rand Paul, the son of Congressman Ron Paul, the legendary libertarian leader from Texas.

Senatorial candidate Paul who is preaching a small-government message - among other things, he wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and end US military interventions around the world - was favoured by the grassroots Tea Party movement.

'This Tea Party movement is a message to Washington that we're unhappy and we want things done differently,' Mr Paul told supporters. 'The mandate of our victory is huge.'

Another political upset: Arkansas Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, who held her seat solidly for two terms and who, like Mr Specter, was backed by Mr Obama and other Democratic leaders, did poorly in the primary and is now facing a runoff with her closest opponent, Lieutenant-Governor Bill Halter, because neither had the 50 per cent of the vote needed to clinch their party's nomination.

And earlier in the primary season, Republican voters retired long-time Senator Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, while Democrats fired Representative Alan Mollohan, a veteran West Virginia Democrat, and elected the younger and more conservative Mike Oliverio.

At the same time, a young political insurgent by the name of Marco Rubio has already forced Florida Governor Charlie Crist to leave the Republican Party after it became clear that Mr Crist, a veteran politician, was going to lose to Mr Rubio in the Republican Senate primary. Mr Crist is now running for the Senate as an independent.

Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona is also facing a challenge from a Tea Partyer, ultra-conservative opponent J D Hayworth, in the coming Republican primary in the state.

On the Democratic side, veteran Democratic Representative Charles Rangel of New York is trying to ward off opposition who hope to fire him in the Democratic primary.

Republicans are arguing that Mr Paul's resounding victory as a referendum on the strength of the Tea Party movement, whose members tend to identity with the political right, is an indication that Americans are frustrated with the policies of the Obama administration and the Democrats and that they will vote to throw all the Democratic 'bums' out in November and replace them with Republican 'outsiders'.

Yet, in a special election for the House seat from a very conservative Pennsylvania district long held by the now-dead Democrat John Murtha that was held on May 18, it was the Democratic candidate Mark Critz who won the contest, defeating a Republican candidate who ran on a very aggressive anti-Obama platform.

Mr Critz did run as a conservative Democrat, but the failure on the part of the Republicans to win the Pennsylvania House seat only highlights the complex electoral reality this year in which the Republicans don't have any major advantage over the Democrats.

Indeed, the Democrats remain optimistic that the anti-incumbent sentiment could actually work in their favour, noting that Mr Obama himself had won the presidential race - and the earlier Democratic primaries - as an 'outsider' running against the political establishment in his party and in Washington.

From that perspective, Mr Obama and the Democrats could market themselves as the 'outsiders' in the new 'Americans Want to Throw ALL the Bums Out' while portraying the Republicans as those opposing changes, including the reforms to the healthcare and financial regulation systems.

If - and big a 'if' - the momentum of the economic recovery accelerates by November, the Democrats, while losing a few seats, could still maintain their majorities in the House and the Senate. And who knows? Perhaps by November we are going to have an entirely new narrative.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


AMW said…
Talk of a GOP romp in November is premature, but hardly unjustified. Yet the polls show a clear distaste for both parties (and their PC tactics). The U.S. is at a political crossroads, and I think it's rather exciting.

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