U.S. Department of State

Midterm Election Scene Setter

In a speech before the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Press Center, Thomas Mann previews the upcoming 2010 midterm elections.

First we better get one thing clear. I am not a witch. [Laughter]. I’m just you. We’re just all folks here, huh? One of the reasons people, including foreign journalists seem to be turned out of this election is because of the crazy things that seem to be happening.

I just returned from speaking in London and in Seoul. Of course foremost on their mind is the tea party, but the real question in their mind is what in the world is going on in your country? Here you elect this extraordinarily attractive and promising African American President of the United States that transforms global opinion toward the United States, and now, 19-20 months later he’s fallen from grace, the love affair seems to be over and the wackos, they say, seem to be on the verge of taking over the government. Please explain.

That’s what I’ve been asked to do recently in London and Seoul. Let me take a couple of minutes to suggest to you why it’s not all so mysterious as to what’s going on.

Mid-term elections are strange events for those of you coming from other countries where particularly parliamentary governments, where there is a periodic election every three years or four years or five years for the government, and that’s it. If you manage to assemble a single party majority or a coalition government, you don’t have to face the electorate right away.

We’re different with our mid-term elections and we have a traditional loss of seats by the President’s party at mid-term. We’ve had exceptions. 9/11 created one; in 1982 the Republican threat of an impeachment and a buoyant economy created a modest exception in 1998. Before that you have to go all the way back to 1934 and after two years of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, in the depths of the Great Depression. So it’s normal to have a fall-back. Usually a consequence of a very different electorate, much lower turnout, and the people who don’t turn out at mid-term who did in the previous presidential election are those that provided the margin of victory for the winner. So you have this surge in a presidential election, then a decline afterward.

A second reason, a relevant fact, is there are a lot of Democratic seats at risk. Democrats are now, as a result of their victories in 2006 and 2008 when they picked up a net of 50 additional seats, they’re really above their natural strength. They’re holding congressional districts that have traditionally voted Republican in presidential campaigns, so they’re vulnerable. They have to defend a large number of seats with conservative Republican constituencies.

The third factor is simply the state of the economy. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of this. If the nascent recovery that we saw at the end of the last quarter of 2009, the first quarter of this year, had continued with growth in the 3.5 to 5 percent range with private sector jobs adding maybe 200,000-plus each month, that sort of moment of optimism in the midst of deep pessimism from the worst economic recession since the 1930s might well have continued and this would be a kind of middling, mid-term loss, yes, but not one in which the majorities of the Democrats in both House and Senate would be threatened.

So the state of the economy, the unemployment, the underemployment, the sort of stagnant income, the declining income for some families, the decline in personal assets, in retirement funds, stock holdings and personal savings. All of that has created a great sense that nothing is working in this country. People are very bleak about the state of the economy.

Given that, given those three factors -- traditional mid-term loss, large number of Democratic seats at risk and a really abysmal economy, both objectively and subjectively, and no other factor we would predict major Republican gains in the House and the senate. The only question would become would those gains be large enough to change the majority, to put the Democrats out of power in the House and/or Senate.

Therefore, I think we have enough evidence based on that alone, but confirmed by a whole host of other information, that leads me to believe that we’re looking at a range of 35 to 50 seats in the House; 39 needed for a Republican majority. If I had to make a point forecast it would probably be in the mid 40s. But, if you will, the range of possibilities goes sort of beyond that and nothing is guaranteed. We can talk a bit about that.

In the Senate, there are now probably as many as 13 Democratic seats that are being contested seriously. For a while there seemed to be 10, but others got added like Connecticut, which wasn’t supposed to be close; and West Virginia; and Wisconsin, where initially it was thought Russ Feingold would win that race easily. So there are plenty of seats up, and yet if you look at those individually you see three, four that the Democrats, five are very likely to hold. Including Connecticut and California and Washington and probably West Virginia.

Anyway, you look at that and you say the range we’re looking at is probably five to ten, and again, a sort of point forecast would be in the range of eight seats or so. But again, in both cases it could tip one way or the other. Anything is possible. It’s one of the reasons why this election is so interesting. It’s interesting because it’s not going to be like those five congressional elections starting in 1996 and ending in 2004 when there was almost no shift in the party strength in the House and Senate. Very little, and then suddenly boom, boom, boom -- three elections in a row with substantial national forces operating.

So I think the election is interesting because we know it’s going to be a big change, but we don’t know just how big. Some have, looking at a recent, in fact yesterday’s sort of Gallup likely voter model, which is truly an outlier in the world of polls. It’s just nutty. It showed the possibility of a 15 percentage point lead for the Republicans in the vote, which at the very time the Washington Post was coming in at 6 and Newsweek actually had a Democratic advantage. So they’re all over the board. It increases the uncertainty that we have with respect to this. But we also know it’s really consequential for the next two years and potentially for 2011 and beyond.

How it comes out exactly is going to depend upon really four factors, which way it goes beyond the obvious point that there will be large Republican gains.

One is turnout, the relative turnout between the parties. You’ve heard this story before. Democrats are discouraged, Republicans are enthused. That’s half accurate. In reality, all indicators are that the Democrats are actually pretty enthused. They may not get to the point they were at in 2006, but for them, traditionally, they’re going to have a reasonably high mid-term turnout. It’s just that the Republicans are really enthused and seem to be on the way to producing a turnout substantially higher than they’ve had in recent years. It’s partly the negativity bias in politics. It’s easier to get involved and concerned when you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. It was hard for Republicans when they had their President in office and then their party and the majority in Congress. Things weren’t going well for some of them, but who are they going to take it out on? They didn’t want to take it out on their own party. So that has certainly made a difference.

That’s the natural individual motivation for turnout -- Republican advantage. Then it’s the “get out the vote” efforts which might in regions produce two to three percentage point addition to the electorate if it’s done well. We think Democrats have a better shot at that. We also know presidential visits can make a difference, not in changing anybody’s mind, but in helping to mobilize turnout so it’s worth paying attention where the President travels to.

Second is money. Democrats have had an advantage throughout the year. Their candidates have raised a lot of money; the congressional democratic campaign committees have done better than their sister Republican committees. It was looking pretty good until we saw in the last couple of months the mobilization of outside groups. Some so-called 527 organizations, political organizations. Others now operating under the cover of 501C4 status which allows one to maintain the privacy of their donors. And in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen like about a seven to one Republican advantage in advertising.

At the margin, that could make a difference, but Democrats have enough money budgeted to be on TV and to make their case. I don’t think they’re going to be blown out because of money.

Third is the campaign frame. Mid-term elections are traditionally referendums on the performance of the government. Democrats are trying desperately to turn it into a choice, not a referendum. For obvious reason. The Republicans are no more popular, indeed less popular, than the Democrats. The public has no confidence in Republicans as a party. Republican partisans embrace them enthusiastically. But the other swing voters, it’s referendum. That’s why the effort of Obama and others to scare people about the tea party and extreme positions taken by some candidates.

The odds of changing the frame for those independent voters who don’t pay much attention to politics and react in a fairly simple, pragmatic way, are long, but they’re trying.

Finally, just the nature of the candidates. These are races contested by individual House and Senate candidates and we just don’t know how that’s going to work out.

Again, all that does is introduce some uncertainty, but the bottom line is it’s going to be a good, odds are it will be a very good night for the Republicans. However, the expectations are so high that if they fall short of taking the majority in the House it will be a real downer for them, even though in some respects they might be better off in the minority than with a narrow majority in the Congress and come to share the blame for additional economic stagnation.

I’m going to say one other thing briefly and then just turn to your questions. Could it have been otherwise? That’s the question I got asked constantly when traveling overseas and here. That is, is this a real consequence of a president who wasn’t ready for prime time? You’ve heard the critiques -- inflated campaign promises, misguided priorities, why didn’t he focus like a laser on the jobs issue and set everything else aside, ideological overreach, a government takeover of health care, tactical failures in dealing with -- why did he let them write the legislation themselves? Why didn’t he do it? Well, that’s an easy one to answer. We have a Constitution and Congress is the first branch of government, but that’s another story. Communications breakdown. No compelling narrative to keep people attached.

There’s a kernel of truth in each of these but I would assert all of them are wrong and unjustified and don’t take into account the real decisions that he was confronted with and made. I believe that had he done what they wanted them to do on all of these, it wouldn’t have affected the basic dynamic of this election. Only if he could have taken steps that would have produced a quicker and more fulsome recovery with job creation. That is if he could have gotten a stimulus above a trillion dollars. If more money could have been sort of pumped directly into job producing activities, yeah. But the chance of him getting that through Congress were close to zero given the nature of our political system.

We have parliamentary like parties, but we have congressional procedures. So having a majority to put your program in place is not sufficient. You have to have super majorities in the Senate. And when you face a unified opposition party it’s tough.

So it couldn’t have been different in my view. It’s playing out in a way that’s reflected in experiences in many parts of the world. Slow, painful recoveries from deep financial and economic crises impose political pain on whoever is in office and that’s the Democrats right now.

View the entire speech and Q&A session at state.gov »