A Primer on the 2010 US House and Senate Elections

By Al Giordano

The national conversation among political junkies, insiders and reporters over whether the Republican party can take the US House and/or Senate this November is fraught with dysfunction, so it’s really hard to reach beyond the many smokescreens and attempted manipulations of public opinion to get a good read on it.

The comparisons to 1994, when then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich and his “Contract for America” brought GOP triumph in 52 Democratic congressional districts, ending 72 years of Democratic control of the House, are manifold. It was the midterm election after a Democrat (Bill Clinton) won the White House, and the ghost of ’94 still has Democrats spooked, Republicans pumped and political reporters and pundits reaching for the easy comparison.

I covered those elections in ’94 for The Boston Phoenix, and let me please just point out some key differences between then and now:

As of last year, 62 percent of Americans had Internet access in the home (and 82 percent of those had broadband). That wasn’t the case in 1994. As late as 1997, only 17 percent of Americans had Internet access in the home. And, today, about 90 percent of US homes have cable or satellite TV. That was a healthy 62 percent in 1994, but without the screaming cable news channels like Fox on the right or General Electric’s MSNBC counter-programming to reach a liberal demographic audience. CNN was basically the only national cable news channel in town in 1994.

Back then, network TV news and daily newspapers were all powerful in determining the political discourse in the United States: ABC, CBS and NBC, and their local affiliates, were royalty. Their news shows were the most important slot for candidates to place their campaign ads, because that's where most of the voters could be found each night. Network TV news and daily newspapers still enjoyed the illusion of authority. People actually believed that what the local TV newscaster or the editorial page writer said was true!

What has changed since 1994 is that the American populace has splintered into thousands of sub-demographic groups and is getting its news and forming its political opinions based on a wide variety of media sources. The golden age of network and daily newspaper dominance over the electoral choices made by citizens has evaporated.

I take you on this stroll down this Amnesia Lane because the new media landscape makes it less likely that electoral history in 2010 will so cleanly repeat what occurred in 1994. I’m not saying that it is impossible that the Republicans could take the House or the Senate or both. What I’m saying is that if it does happen, it won’t happen because the dominant national media discourse (as it did in 1994) stokes an electoral stampede, but, rather, it will happen because one party outmaneuvered the other, one contest at a time, in 50 or 60 key congressional districts and senate contests, more or less.

November will not be a national election, but a series of separate state and congressional district elections each with their own dynamics. (Ironically, former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s credo, that “all politics is local,” is even more true today than it was when he said it in the years leading up to 1994.)

Much ado has been made over a recent Gallup poll showing a reported ten-percentage point gap between Americans who say they would vote for a generic Republican over a generic Democrat for Congress. First of all, generic candidates aren’t going to be on anyone’s ballot this November. (I’m reminded of another popular political axiom: that most Americans hate Congress but they like their own district’s congressman.) But even if we presume that the generic poll offers at least some guidance as to what will happen in November, the fact remains that the Gallup poll is almost an outlier among the sum total of public opinion surveys on that question.

Mark Blumenthal at pollster.com points out that the average of all polls on the question show not a ten percent difference in generic party preference for Congress, but, rather, a five point (and according to the average that includes newer polls, a four point) advantage for Republicans (which, if it doesn’t increase by November, would point to GOP gains in Congress but short of an outright majority that would shift which party controls the gavel and the committee chairmanships). Five points is actually quite normal for a year like this, given American voter tendencies to lean toward the party not in the White House during midterm elections:

But headlines that merely tell the truth – “Normal Election Forecast for November” – don’t sell newspapers, or keep you glued to the TV or Internet screen. And beyond the transparent effort by so many in the media to grab your attention with apocalyptic warnings for Democrats or triumphant teasers for Republicans, there is another level of duplicity going on behind the curtain.

If you look at the comments section under Blumenthal’s “just the facts, M’am” essay you can see the partisans on each side cheering or attacking each pollster based on whether the results fit what the commenter wants to happen. But that’s the rank-and-file party activist or sympathizer position. Up above, in the war rooms of the political consultants and party operatives, Democrats are actually stoking the reports of their own demise under the belief that they will scare their grassroots troops into action. (And that explains, for example, why the Democratic-leaning New York Times has already sensationalized its new team member Nate Silver’s Senate projections to imply something that Nate’s own numbers do not: a GOP takeover of the Senate: the headline accurately states “New Forecast Shows Democrats Losing 6 to 7 Senate Seats,” but the lede paragraph jumps immediately to the doom and gloom scenario: “The Democrats now have an approximately 20 percent chance of losing 10 or more seats in the Senate.”)

Using the 538 model, which is still useful if one can look beyond the NY Times editors’ spin on it and just at the hard numbers, there are in fact just eight states in which the aggregate difference in the polls show a contest to be within five points. It is in these states where the control of the Senate will be decided: Democratic seats in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, Washington, California and Wisconsin plus Republican seats Kentucky and in Florida where Governor Charlie Crist, running as an independent, could wrestle the seat from the extremist Marco Rubio. Other states still in play include Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, while Senate elections in Alaska and Delaware could take turns toward the crazy and still get into play by November.

If you live in one of those states, then, yes, you’ve got a battle on your hands. If you live in an nearby state without a competitive contest, and you were active in the 2008 presidential campaign, you’ll likely receive an invitation to come knock on doors (or make phone calls from your own) in the neighboring state very soon, if you haven’t already.

A similar political logic is at play in the House. If there are 50 or 60 or 70 congressional districts where one party might wrestle the seat from the other, that means that 80 to 85 percent of Americans live in districts where the incumbent party will almost certainly retain control. In the coming weeks I will try to produce a list of the remaining 15 to 20 percent of congressional districts that are in play, because that is where the action is going to be this fall. Feel free to use the comments section here to offer your nominees for that list and explain how you know that contest is close enough to go either way.

In those closer contests, a lot depends on the individual candidates and the competence of their campaigns. Organizing for America – Obama’s grassroots political army, now part of the Democratic party – has made lists of all the first time voters from 2008 in each of those contested districts and a lot will ride on whether they can be inspired or pulled by the ear to actually vote. That’s not going to happen because of duplicitous scare tactics. That kind of thing only happens the way it did in 2008: through person-to-person recruitment, effective door knocking, phone banking and the deployment of community organizers in social networks, and not just the online variety.

Another factor that cuts somewhat against GOP chances to retake the House or Senate is the dysfunction in its own party ranks, between the Republican establishment and the in-house radicals broadly painted as “tea party” factions. Think Progress has a very interesting story that reveals seven congressional and three senate elections (as well as various gubernatorial races) where the Republican candidate defeated in that party’s primary has not endorsed the party's nominee: there is a lot of internecine bad blood flowing inside the GOP ranks. And in cases where the more radical “tea party” associated candidate won many primaries, the sheer battiness of the nominee produced is going to scare some voters away (and this phenomenon could still happen in some contests yet to have their primaries, such as the Republican senate primary in Delaware).

In this sense, a political parody site like Wonkette has become more relevant to the 2010 midterm elections than the entirety of the so-called Netroots, which in 2006 became a kind of kingmaker in the Democrats’ midterm electoral triumphs. I tuned out completely on the Netroots blogs since June and only started browsing them again recently, and its as if they’re stuck on autopilot, still debating “Obama, good or bad” and blissfully disinterested in the midterm elections, certainly compared to where they were in 2006. On the eve of the 2010 elections, they’re still infighting like it’s 2009! Meanwhile, day in, day out, Wonkette is producing wonderful caricature profiles of the insane class of GOP congressional and senate nominees this year, and is actually driving the media discourse about them.

Likewise, the cable TV political shows on Comedy Central – The Daily Show and The Colbert report – have become far more relevant to the national political discourse than any host on MSNBC or even Fox, which has gone down the Glenn Beck rabbit hole in a manner that only increases the dysfunction inside the GOP. Fox and the “tea party” minions it has stoked are now the Republican Party’s own version of the 2010 Netroots: mirrors on each side of the partisan divide that seem more concerned with asserting their own illusory relevance and factional power than with actually getting out there and winning general elections in November.

In the cases of Wonkette and Comedy Central the defining edge is, of course, a sense of humor, or, more importantly, not having lost one. My own coverage of the upcoming US midterm elections will try to adhere more closely to theirs than to the humorless pundits, talk show hosts and bloggers of the right and the left. That took a summer of turning all of them off to rewire my own news gathering habits and get back to the basics of researching what the actual numbers really show us.

The two main points I would like to make are: First, that it will not be the end of the world if a new generation of GOP circus clowns take over the House or the Senate (an event, that if it happened, would create its own backlash by 2012), and; Second, that it is still more likely that the Democrats hold onto both houses than that the GOP takes either of them. The outcome will be decided by efforts like those of Organizing for America, and whether Democrats can successfully package their opponents in so many districts as the mentally unstable whack jobs that so many GOP primaries have produced for 2010.

The fact is that there is not one election this November, but up to eighty separate ones where the control of the House and Senate will be determined. Each one has its own unique candidates and dynamics. And on the congressional district level, and in the less populace states, these are contests where a sole volunteer with good community organizing chops could still make the difference between victory or defeat.

Update: Wonkette asks the Internets, with a quote from this essay, Are You People Driving the Media Discourse? Heh.

Are you ready for some football, Field Hands?

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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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