Op-Ed

A Single Democratic Victory in a Single Pennsylvania Race Doesn’t Change Anything

William A. Galston

Conventional wisdom: it is a fickle, fickle thing. The latest example of the incredible lightness of opinion in today’s media and political climate is the reaction to the results of the race in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district. Politicians and pundits, right- as well as left-leaning, are taking it as evidence that Republican hopes of retaking the House this November are too optimistic. That may turn out to be the case, but PA-12 is hardly enough evidence to warrant the conclusion.

First, let’s place that district in context. Yes, it was one of Obama’s ten worst Appalachian congressional district’s during his 2008 primary contest with Hillary Clinton. But it was his best of those ten, by far, during the general election (he got 49 percent of the vote), and it was the only one of the ten that John Kerry carried in 2004. The reason: its party registration is so overwhelmingly Democratic that even when lots of conservative Democrats peel off, a majority or near-majority remains for the party’s nominee. So while the Republicans may have believed their own hype in the run-up to this week’s special election, PA-12 was always going to be tough for them

Now let’s look at three Gallup surveys released within the past two days. One notes that so far in 2010, only 23 percent of Americans have been satisfied with the way things are going—well below the 40 percent average of the past three decades, and the lowest reading recorded in a mid-term election year going back to 1982. A second survey observes that the two political parties have been at or near parity among registered voters since January in the generic congressional ballot. This is especially significant because (as the survey shows) “the structure of voting preferences seen in the first three months of the [election] year generally carried through to the end.” And parity among registered voters would be bad news for Democrats: on average, Republicans have enjoyed about a five-point turnout edge in midterm elections. 

The third survey underscores this point. It highlights a 19-point gap between conservatives and liberals in their enthusiasm about voting in this year’s midterm elections. And 62 percent of those who describe themselves as “very conservative” (10 percent of registered voters) say that they are very enthusiastic, versus only 44 percent of those who term themselves “very liberal” (a scant 4 percent of registered voters). 

Connect the dots and we have the portrait of an electorate that’s highly dissatisfied with the status quo and that seems poised to give more votes in the aggregate to Republican than to Democratic candidates this fall. I don’t know how many House seats that translates into, but I’d be surprised if the number didn’t start with a “3” (at least). As far as I can see, only a big change in the economy—a significant increase in the rate of GDP growth leading to a noticeable reduction in top-line unemployment numbers and a bump up in real disposable income for those who have jobs—would be enough to change the overall outlook for November.

Author