While most of those in the business of predicting elections are smart enough not to offer a specific number of seats they think the parties will gain or lose, there is fairly wide agreement on this proposition: Come November, the Democrats are doomed. They'll hold the Senate, but the House is all but lost. Charlie Cook, probably the most popular of this group, has for months been saying things like, "It's very hard to come up with a scenario where Democrats don't lose the House." Others have been only somewhat more pessimistic about the ruling party's chances.
The Democrats will certainly lose seats. The president's party almost always does in off-year elections, and Democrats have to defend seats they won in many conservative districts in 2006 and 2008. Put that together with the still-struggling economy and a broad anti-incumbent mood, and you've got a lot of nervous Democrats -- and a lot of Republicans who believe that we'll soon be adding the phrase "Speaker of the House John Boehner" to our national lexicon.
Sorry if I just gave you a cold shiver. But fear not -- there are reasons to think that maybe things aren't looking so awful after all. First, the national "mood," insofar as it can be pinned down, is far more anti-incumbent than anti-Democrat -- not much comfort, but some. Congress' approval ratings are extremely low, it's true. But they've been trending slowly upward in the last two months, and the public thinks even less of congressional Republicans than congressional Democrats.
A couple of previously popular incumbents have already been tossed by their parties, and a couple of more could lose today. But is there one message to take from all these developments? Not really. In every election, an incumbent here or there is challenged in a primary, and the line of attack is usually that they've been insufficiently loyal. What you seldom see is people as established as Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania being tossed to the curb. The first two we can lay at the feet of the Tea Party movement. As these events demonstrate, the Tea Party movement has its greatest effect not outside the Republican Party but inside, where it defeated Bennett and drove out Crist.
The Tea Party can fit inside the GOP because it is more a mood than a philosophy: surly, bitter, and above all entitled (cut my taxes, but keep your hands off my Medicare and Social Security). As Michael Kinsley recently wrote in The Atlantic, "If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters." Tea Partiers in Maine just gave it a shot -- and failed: You can take a gander at the Maine GOP's muddled platform, which includes such gems as "Return to the principles of Austrian Economics," "Clarify that health care is not a right," and "Repeal and prohibit any participation in efforts to create a one world government."
The Tea Partiers may be a little crazy and relatively small in number, but they're sure going to get to the polls. As for those not busy searching the skies for black helicopters, these people are far more likely to vote if they're mad. And one thing that keeps people mad -- and pulls independent voters over to the opposition -- is a bad economy, the best predictor of election results. And that's the next reason Democrats should be feeling better: While we don't know whether things will take a turn for the worse, we do know that at the moment all signs are pointing in a positive direction. The economy added 290,000 jobs in April -- the fourth month in a row of positive growth. There are six more monthly jobs reports between now and Election Day, and if they are all positive, then a powerful narrative will take hold, one of an economy clearly on the mend.
And though it may seem strange, that narrative often matters more to the election than what people see in their own lives. As a huge number of studies over the last three decades have shown, American voters don't just vote their pocketbooks but are instead affected by their perception of how the larger economy is doing. If in October, media reports are rosy and the Democrats can reasonably argue that the economy is humming along, the momentum for change -- and the country's dissatisfaction -- will be greatly reduced.
Of course, that's a big "if." But should it come to pass, the Democrats' big argument becomes even more persuasive. President Barack Obama has been out making the case that Republicans, having brought us to disaster before, are now hoping to muck things up all over again. Or, as he put it, "So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back."
The argument ought to make sense to anyone who has been paying even the remotest attention to politics over the last couple of years. Republicans did indeed screw things up, which is why Democrats won in 2008. Republicans did indeed become "the party of no," offering unified opposition to almost everything the administration has tried to do. If the last piece of the argument falls into place -- that the Democrats have extricated the car from the ditch -- then it becomes a powerful case. Paul Krugman raised the possibility that the Democrats' performance in 2010 could be like Harry Truman's in 1948: a surprise victory pulled out by relentless attacks on Republicans in Congress. It just might work: For the first time in six months, Democrats have moved ahead of Republicans in Pollster.com's generic House ballot aggregation.
Finally, there is the turnout question. As Nate Silver recently observed, Democrats are actually pretty enthusiastic about voting this year, according to polls. The problem is that Republicans are incredibly enthusiastic about voting. So the Democratic base isn't dispirited; it's just in danger of being swamped by an even more motivated Republican base.
The Obama machine -- the largest voter mobilization apparatus ever seen -- won't be able to ignite its engine of turnout and produce the same dramatic pilgrimage to the polls it did in 2008. But it might be able to give threatened Democrats just enough help to hold their losses down to an acceptable level. Combine that with an improving economy, and you could see an Election Day that isn't as disastrous as so many are predicting.
The Democrats currently enjoy a 79-seat advantage in the House, meaning Republicans need a net gain of 40 seats to take control. Since World War II, the president's party has lost an average of 24 House seats in off-year elections. If that's all that happens on Nov. 2, congressional Democrats -- and the White House -- will be breathing a sigh of relief. It just might happen.