February 3, 2010


It's the numbers, stupid.

Recent Democratic debacles in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia portend neither a significant trend toward the Republicans nor a rejection of the Obama health care initiative. Instead, they indicate a regression to pre-Obama and pre-Bush politics. It's back to the 1990s, when voter turnout was an anemic 20 to 25 percent. It's politics as usual.

The "change we need" zealots who flocked to the polls in 2008 are disappointed in the president's performance and disillusioned with politics in general. They're definitely not going to vote Republican in 2010. They're simply not going to vote.

Habitual Democratic voters are also distinctly unenergized, given the Democrats' national dominance and uninspiring record. They will vote in reduced numbers. A de-energized Democratic/Obama base means a Republican "wave" is in the making for 2010.

In Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown upset Democrat Martha Coakley in the special U.S. Senate election on Jan. 19. Brown got 1,168,107 votes (52 percent of the total cast) to Coakley's 1,058,682, a margin of 109,425 votes.

Just 15 months earlier Barack Obama crushed John McCain in the state by 1,904,097-1,108,854, getting 62 percent of the votes cast and winning by a margin of 795,243 votes in a turnout of 3,012,951. In 2004 John Kerry obliterated George Bush by 1,803,800-1,071,100, winning by a margin of 732,700 votes in a turnout of 2,874,900. Turnout increased by 138,051 in 2008.

Last month, in a turnout of 2,226,789, Brown's total exceeded McCain's by 59,253 votes and Bush's by 97,007 votes. The Republican minority was motivated, and Brown had appeal to independents, but the Brown vote was barely above the state's base Republican vote. Conversely, Coakley got 845,415 fewer votes than Obama. That means that approximately 44 percent of the 2008 Obama voters refused to embrace a pro-Obama Democrat for senator, while a few swung to Brown. Turnout was down by 785,162, or 26 percent.

In Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell won the governorship last November, defeating Creigh Deeds by 1,157,672-814,032, getting 59 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 343,640 votes.

Just 12 months earlier Obama topped McCain in Virginia by 1,959,532-1,725,005, getting 53 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 234,527 votes in a turnout of 3,684,537. In 2004 Bush beat Kerry by 1,716,959-1,454,742, getting 54 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 262,217 votes in a turnout of 3,171,701. McCain's vote was nearly identical to Bush's, but the Democratic presidential vote spiked by 504,790, and turnout in 2008 increased by 512,836 over 2004. More than half a million prior nonvoters got energized and backed Obama.

In November turnout was just 1,971,704 -- a stunning 1,712,833 less than in the 2008 presidential election, a falloff of 46 percent. McDonnell had 567,333 fewer votes than McCain, and Deeds 1,145,500 had fewer votes than Obama. Those 500,000-plus "energized" 2008 Obama voters got de-energized in 2009, along with another 600,000 Virginia Democrats and 500,000 Republicans.

In New Jersey, where governmental corruption is endemic, former U.S. attorney Chris Christie, a Republican, won the governorship last November, defeating one-term incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine by 1,108,778-1,002,560, getting 49 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 106,218 votes, with 124,500 votes going to a third candidate, in a turnout of 2,235,838.

A year earlier, Obama smashed McCain in New Jersey by 2,215,422-1,613,307, getting 57 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 612,115 votes in a turnout of 3,828,729. In 2004 Kerry defeated Bush by 1,911,430-1,670,003, getting 53 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 241,427 votes in a turnout of 3,581,433. McCain's vote was 56,696 less than Bush's, but Obama's was 303,992 more than Kerry's. Turnout was up in 2008 by 247,296, which means nearly all the new voters opted for Obama.

In 2009 turnout was 2,235,838, or 1,592,891 less than in 2008, a falloff of 42 percent. Christie had 504,529 fewer votes than McCain, but Corzine, an unpopular and corruption-challenged governor, had 1,212,862 fewer votes than Obama. More than 45 percent of the Obama voters refused to embrace Corzine.

As a harbinger of the 2010 elections, these recent developments should terrify all Democratic incumbents.

Obama vanquished McCain in 2008(by 69,498,215-59,948,240, getting 53 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 9,549,975. In 2004 Bush topped Kerry nationally by 62,040,606-59,028,109, getting 51 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 3,012,497 votes. McCain had 2,092,366 fewer votes than Bush, and Obama had(10,470,106 more votes than Kerry. Turnout increased from 121,068,715 in 2004 to 129,446,455 in 2008, an uptick of 8,377,740.

The salient conclusion: Despite Bush's enormous unpopularity, stemming from economic woes and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, McCain got the nation's Republican base vote, while Obama's margin is attributable to new voters who were motivated by his uniqueness, his "change" message, his race and/or Bush hatred.

 What is evident, thus far in Obama's first term, is that part of his 2008 coalition, consisting of blacks and white liberals, is still intact, but that the casual voters who once were inspired by Obama have returned to their usual hibernation. Further, the Democrats' regression to their big government and tax-and-spend proclivities has undermined their "change" theme and rejuvenated the conservative Republican base.

Insofar as off-year elections are concerned, a "wave" occurred in 1958, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1994 and 2006. Voter anger toward one party spurs turnout of the "out" party vote by 5 to 10 percent, depresses turnout of the "in" party vote by about the same amount, and prompts a 5 to 10 percent swing of independents to the "out" party. That means "in" party incumbents' victory margins fall by 5 to 15 percent.

In 1958, during an Eisenhower Administration recession, Democrats picked up 49 U.S. House seats and 17 U.S. Senate seats. In 1966, as voters soured on Lyndon Johnson's big-spending Great Society and Vietnam War escalation, Republicans gained 47 House seats and three Senate seats. In 1974, as Watergate wracked the country and dissolved the Nixon Administration, Democrats picked up 43 House seats and five Senate seats.

In 1982, with double-digit unemployment and Reagan Administration tax cuts yet to produce an effect, Democrats won 26 House seats but made no Senate gains. In 1994, after two tumultuous years of Bill Clinton, Republicans gained 53 House seats and 12 Senate seats, taking control of Congress. In 2006, with Bush's approval ratings scraping 30 percent, Democrats won 31 House seats and six Senate seats, taking back control of Congress after a dozen years.

Democratic majorities after the 2008 election were 60-40 in the Senate and 256-179 in the House. To regain control, the Republicans need to win 10 Democratic-held Senate seats and 39 Democratic-held House seats. Every congressional seat is subject to remap after the 2010 census, so the Republicans need to elect governors in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas and Florida to protect their incumbents.

The outlook:

U.S. Senate: Each party must defend 18 seats, with 10 open seats in which the incumbent is retiring -- Republicans in Missouri, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio, Kansas and Florida and Democrats in Delaware, Illinois, Connecticut and North Dakota. To take control, the Republicans must keep all their open seats, win in Illinois, Delaware and North Dakota (which is now likely), and knock off six Democratic incumbents.

A few months ago, that was an absurdity. Now it's a possibility. Democratic incumbents in Nevada, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Colorado are trailing their prospective Republican foes. Democratic majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and party switcher Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania probably will lose. Without Obama on the ballot, and without Obama rallying his base, the Democrats will be fortunate to retain a 52-48 Senate majority.

U.S. House: According to the Rothenberg Political Report, 44 Democratic House seats are now rated vulnerable in 2010. Of the closest 20 congressional elections in 2008-09, 12 were won by the Democratic candidate. All could lose in 2010. In addition, 36 Democrats won in districts that were carried by Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008, and 49 Democrats won in districts that were carried by McCain in 2008.

A November "wave" could shave 10 percent off the vote of every Democratic running, and the Obama voter evaporation could mean the loss of another 5 percent. A Republican pickup of 30 to 35 seats now is in the realm of possibility.

The result: If the 2009-10 Democratic majorities couldn't enact the Obama agenda, the next Congress will be seized by total gridlock. To get reelected in 2012, Obama will either have to replicate Harry Truman in 1948 and run against a "do nothing" Republican Congress or obstructionary Republican minority, blaming them for all ills, or replicate Clinton, demonstrate some bipartisanship and leadership, and be a unifier. That means accepting "no change."

My prediction: After the 1985 Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl, they were perceived as an imminent dynasty. They never won again. Likewise with Obama. His 2008 victory was supposed to have realigned America, precipitating an era of Democratic dominance. With the "Obama Nation" regressing into hibernation, it's back to politics as usual.