Reading the Tea Leaves: More Evidence on the 2010 Political Environment

This article was co-written by Chris Wilson and Daniel Narvaiz, both of GOP research firm Wilson Research Strategies

As someone who regularly speaks to Republican gatherings around the country and on television, I’m regularly asked to predict the context in which 2010 general election campaigns will be run.

Of course, no one knows. It is impossible to predict the events and narratives that might arise between now the fall of 2010 that will define those elections any more than a researcher in the summer of 2001 could have predicted the tragedies of 9-11 or a researcher in the summer of 2006 could have predicted the spate of late-breaking scandals that would destroy any hope of retaining a Republican majority.

That understood, what we can do is analyze the early evidence and help our candidates understand what the landscape may resemble in late 2010. From that perspective all signs point to a golden opportunity for Republicans to take the offensive on a variety of issues.

Looking back at President Truman’s mid-term election, the first mid-term election Gallop reports Presidential approval for, the President’s party has lost seats in the House in all but two cases:

  • In 1998 Democrats picked up five seats due at least in part to Republicans impeachment of President Clinton who was very popular at the time (throughout 1998 President Clinton’s approval ratings floated in the mid 60’s).
  • In 2002, President George W. Bush’s first mid-term election, Republicans gained a total of eight seats. However, Bush’s approval ratings were in the 70’s and the American public was willing to give the President just about anything he wanted to protect the country from terrorism.

President Obama’s job approval ratings have already fallen below the 60% approval mark that has generally protected the sitting President’s party in Congress. Based on current trends, Obama is likely to have approval ratings in the mid-fifties if not worse.

In the last 60 years Presidents have had approval ratings in the mid 50’s on three separate occasions and their party lost an average of 27 seats in the House.

Unless the economy dramatically reverses itself in an almost unprecedented manner, the economy is likely to still be in recession during the 2010 mid-term elections. The economy has been in a state of recession during 7 different mid-term elections and in all but one (2002 which was a true outlier due to the events of September 11) of those cases the President’s party lost seats in the House. The average loss among those years was 24 seats (Presidents Eisenhower and Ford lost 48 seats each in ’58 and ’74 respectively).

President Obama beginning to look ineffective at driving the Democratic agenda. The Administration narrowly passed Cap and Trade, one of the President’s top priorities, through the House and according to Senators Reid and Inhofe it is likely dead in the Senate. Healthcare reform does not appear likely to move quickly; almost certainly not before 2010.

While President Obama is currently receiving high marks on his handling of Foreign Policy, recent gaffes and mis-steps by the President could change that. Ineffective responses to situations in Iran, North Korea and Honduras haven’t hurt Obama yet, but if we see real harm come to American interests in general, or American citizens specifically, as a result of this weak, almost Carteresque, approach to foreign policy it will put Democrats at an even greater electoral disadvantage.

The ‘signature’ achievements of the Democrats in Congress and the administration coming into 2010 may end up being unpopular economic policies, such as the federal stimulus and the banking and auto bailouts. These are all issues that will help Republicans.

While it is too early to speak with certainty, the current direction of the political environment appears as though 2010 is shaping up to be a year where the political winds will favor Republicans.

At the very least, the “halo” around the administration is quickly dissipating. Republicans who hope to be successful in 2010 should already be working to test and refine messages that will highlight the differences between a Republican approach to solving national problems and the handouts, bailouts, and takeovers approach that the Big Government Democrats in DC are so passionately pushing today.