PRINCETON, NJ -- The 2010 election cycle begins in a political climate that is shaping up to be not as favorable to the Democratic Party as the 2006 and 2008 elections were. Having capitalized on broad public discontent with the course of the nation in general and the Republican Party in particular to win control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the party faces the 2010 midterm elections trying to preserve its recent gains.
Gallup's generic congressional ballot provides a summary measure of current voting intentions for Congress. This currently suggests the 2010 midterm elections could be highly competitive, and possibly a strong Republican year if usual turnout patterns prevail.
"First-term presidents who had sub-50% approval ratings at the midterms -- including Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton -- saw their parties suffer large congressional seat losses."
Gallup regularly tracks several measures that give an indication of the political climate and can provide insight into the reasons for Americans' current congressional voting intentions. Although Democrats retain a significant advantage in party affiliation, that advantage has dwindled over the course of this year. Also, there are ominous signs for the majority party in terms of near-record-low congressional job approval and continuing low national satisfaction ratings.
Presidential Job Approval. It is well-documented that the president's party is usually vulnerable to losing congressional seats in midterm elections, though there have been exceptions such as in the 1998 and 2002 elections. Unpopular presidents tend to suffer greater losses, and popular presidents are able to minimize these or even help achieve gains. George W. Bush experienced both outcomes, with Republican gains in 2002 when he was popular and heavy Republican losses in 2006 when he was not.
The Democrats will contest the 2010 elections with their fellow partisan, Barack Obama, in the White House. Right now, Obama's approval ratings are middling, in the low 50s, suggesting he would not be able to minimize Democratic losses to a great degree if the elections were held today. Further erosion of Obama's popularity between now and next November could prove damaging to the Democratic Party. First-term presidents who had sub-50% approval ratings at the midterms -- including Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton -- saw their parties suffer large congressional seat losses. In contrast, a recovery in Obama's approval rating -- particularly to above 60% -- could limit Democratic losses.
Outlook: After a strong start, Obama's approval ratings have slumped, though they remain at or above 50%. Other recent presidents who took office during difficult economic times -- Carter, Reagan, and Clinton -- were below 50% at the time of the midterms, and saw their parties perform poorly in the elections. Obama hopes to avoid a similar fate.
Satisfaction With the Way Things Are Going in the Country/Ratings of the Economy. These ratings are less overtly political than presidential job approval, but have a similar relationship to election outcomes. Lower satisfaction levels and poorer ratings of the economy are associated with poorer performances for the president's party in midterm elections. Gallup has a slightly longer history of asking about satisfaction than about the economy in election years.
At times, presidential approval ratings and satisfaction or economic ratings have been out of step. For example, in 1990 and 2002, the Republican Party was able to overcome either a low satisfaction rating (1990) or downbeat economic perceptions (2002) to achieve a relatively strong election showing, likely due to the popularity of the presidents at those times. Thus, presidential approval is probably the most consequential of the three measures.
In Gallup's most recent update, 26% of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the country. And recent Gallup Daily economic tracking has found only about 11% of Americans rating the economy as either excellent or good. Both measures are down significantly from what Gallup measured just before the 2006 elections and, with Democrats now in power, neither measure appears promising for the party looking ahead to 2010.
Outlook: Unless the economy turns around dramatically over the next year, the Democrats are likely to face an electorate that is very unhappy with the course of the nation and the state of the economy. But they may be able to overcome these factors to some degree if Obama can maintain or increase his popularity.
Congressional Job Approval. Often in recent decades, one party has occupied the White House and the other has controlled Congress, somewhat blurring the degree to which either party can be held accountable for the state of the nation in midterm elections. Generally, it appears the president's party is more important to voters, with that party losing seats in seven of the last nine midterm elections. By contrast, the majority party in Congress has lost seats in four of the last nine midterms.
But Congress' performance is hardly irrelevant to voters. Low congressional approval ratings have been associated with greater congressional seat turnover in midterm elections and higher approval ratings with less change, regardless of which party controls the legislative branch. The magic number appears to be a 40% approval rating for Congress, with seat losses minimized when approval exceeds that level and seat losses generally large when approval is below that figure.
Congressional approval is currently well below that mark, at 21%, and is near the 23% approval found during the 1994 elections, which saw Democrats lose their legislative majority.
Outlook: Americans' ratings of Congress hit new lows last year. After rebounding in the early part of 2009, they are back down to 21% -- just seven points above the all-time low, which would usually suggest higher seat turnover. With Democrats in control of both the presidency and Congress, they are clearly vulnerable in this respect. If there is added sentiment to "throw the bums out" -- which Gallup will measure next year by asking whether members of Congress deserve re-election -- that would only make the situation worse.
Party ID. Shifts in national party support, as measured by the proportion of Americans who identify with or lean to either of the major political parties, can portend a better or a worse year for a party in midterm election years. It obviously is better for a party to go into an election with more supporters than the opposing party. That is certainly not a guarantee of victory, but if both parties' supporters turn out at the same rate, the party with more supporters will win.
Gallup has regularly measured leaned party identification since 1993. Since then, Democrats have gained seats in the two midterm election years when they had a substantial advantage in party support over Republicans in the third quarter (1998 and 2006), and lost seats in the two years (1994 and 2002) when that advantage was not significant. This suggests Democrats need a fairly large cushion in party support to counteract the Republicans' usual advantage in voter turnout.
Currently, Democrats enjoy a significant advantage in support over Republicans, with 48% of Americans in the third quarter of 2009 identifying as or leaning Democratic and 42% identifying as or leaning Republican. However, the Democrats' advantage has shrunk over the course of this year.
It is not unusual for the party advantage in affiliation to change in the year leading up to the midterm elections, so it is far from certain that Democrats will maintain the six-point advantage they averaged in the third quarter of this year. In fact, the Democratic advantage in party affiliation shrank in the year leading up to the midterm elections in 1994, 1998, and 2002. In 2006, the opposite was the case, as the Democratic advantage grew.
Outlook: Democratic supporters continue to outnumber Republican supporters -- clearly a benefit to the Democratic Party. A key will be whether that advantage continues to shrink, or whether Democrats can hold, if not increase, their current edge.
Turnout. Party support as measured by party affiliation, and voter preferences as measured by the generic ballot are only part of the equation in determining an election's outcome. The other component is voter turnout. If Republicans are more successful in getting their voters out to the polls -- as is typical -- they can overcome a Democratic advantage in support.
Gallup assesses turnout using its "likely voter" model, but does not usually do this until the fall of the election year.
For example, in the final 2002 pre-election poll, the Democrats led the Republicans by five points on the generic ballot among all registered voters, but trailed the Republicans by six points among likely voters. The Republicans won the national party vote for the House by five points that year.
Since 1970, Gallup has seen shifts to the Republicans in each midterm election year (after taking into account probable turnout when applying its likely voter model), with the change in the Democratic-Republican gap as little as 1 point (1978) to as many as 11 points (2002). In nine midterm elections since 1970 (Gallup did not make a final estimate in 1986), the average shift in the gap in the Republicans' favor has been about 5 points.
Since 2006, not much has changed for the better in terms of Americans' satisfaction with the way things are going in the country, perceptions of the economy, or approval of the job Congress is doing. What has changed is that Democrats are now in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency after voter dissatisfaction led to steep Republican losses in 2006 and 2008. If national conditions do not improve considerably between now and next November, Democrats appear vulnerable to suffering heavy seat losses of their own. Two factors that are likely to be crucial in determining voter preferences for Congress in 2010 will be President Obama's job approval rating, and whether Democrats' advantage in party support continues to shrink.