It is tempting for people to look at every political race in the US and wonder what it all means for the White House. There’s a time for that, but it’s not quite now, writes Richard Wolffe.
First we need to figure out what it all means about the American landscape – its trends and priorities – at this volatile time in politics and this challenging time for the economy.
The easiest measure is the headline numbers about control of the House and Senate. If the pollsters and forecasters are correct, Democrats are likely to lose their majority in the House and hang on narrowly to their majority in the Senate. But the headlines are a very rough measure of what is going on.
Everything you need to know about the US midterm elections in a Channel 4 News Special Report
Republican gains will be measured not just against the basic measure of winning control (by taking 39 seats). They will also be measured against their landslide victory in 1994, when they won 54 seats and proceeded to try (and fail) to destroy Bill Clinton’s presidency. Republicans are likely to win big on Tuesday but expectations are even higher than that, with some political handicappers predicting 60 or 70 seat gains.
In those circumstances, a Republican failure to take over the Senate – in the worst possible environment for Democrats – is likely to provide a glimmer of hope for the White House, as well as practical help in the forthcoming legislative battles.
But even those measures are general guides to what the midterms mean.
Instead, it is worth concentrating on a handful of states and a handful of exit poll numbers to understand what is going on and how the politicians will respond.
First, the economy. There’s no bigger issue for voters, and no greater point of dispute between Democrats and Republicans as they deal with the most immediate debates over taxes and spending.
On this question, the most recent polls suggest that voters are deeply confused. According to a recent New York Times poll, Americans mostly blame President Bush and Wall Street for the state of the economy – not President Obama. They also believe the economic downturn is temporary and say the economy is where they expected it to be at this point in the Obama presidency. However, at the same time, they disapprove of the way Obama has handled the economy.
The confusion extends to the voters’ views of both parties. They favour Republicans over Democrats by six points among likely voters in a head-to-head contest. But when asked for their approval ratings for each party on its own, they prefer Democrats over Republicans by the same margin.
So beyond the headlines about landslides and tidal waves, there’s a deeply mixed message or five.
Beyond the headlines about landslides and tidal waves, there’s a deeply mixed message or five. Richard Wolffe, political author
The same is true in individual senate races across the country. In California, watch to see what kind of margins Democrats survive (as they’re expected to do) in the governor and senate contests against vastly better-funded Republicans. Conversely, in high profile states like Illinois (Obama’s former seat) and Nevada (home to the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid), the Democrats appear to be falling short. The margins of victory and defeat in those states will shape the optimism or pessimism of strategists on both sides.
One more point worth keeping in mind: this looks like the third change election in a row in the United States. First Congress changed hands in 2006, then the White House in 2008, and now Congress again in 2010. That’s six years of volatility. There’s nothing in the polls, or the behaviour of politicians, to suggest that trend is going to end in 2012.
Richard Wolffe is a political analyst and contributor to NBC, and author of “Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House”. He was formerly Newsweek‘s Senior White House Correspondent.