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Everything You Think You Know About the Midterms is Wrong

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I keep hearing that the Democrats are totally screwed come November 2010, that the midterms are going to be a bit of a bloodbath. Democrats have an outside shot of losing control of the House, according to Charlie Cook. A one in three chance according to Nate Silver. This wasn't the conventional wisdom before the health care debate began, and I'm not sure it will be after. For the time being, that Democrats are currently struggling has led analysts to predict doom on a massive scale.

Here's my problem. The political atmosphere in July and August of 2009 has essentially no relationship to what voter attitudes will be more than a year later. Which isn't to say that health care reform won't have a major impact on the outcome of the midterms. But the issue will be whether or not the Democrats pass a bill, not whether or not they did it gracefully.

If they don't pass it, that's a problem. But even the most skeptical analysts seem to believe at this point that a bill is very likely to pass, and that it will take us as close to universal coverage as we've ever come. If that happens by the end of the year, Obama is going to see a significant spike in his approval ratings, in part because for so long, the expectations of his success remained so low. That boost could easily reverberate down ballot, providing the Democrats who helped get it done with a poll bump of their own.

What will also surely play a critical role in swaying voter opinion is the state of the economy in the fall of 2010. I am not an economist, but my impression is that most economists agree that unemployment numbers tend to lag about a year behind the end of a recession, and that we are currently in the quarter that will turn out to have been the end of this recession. If that's the case, if the recession is really ending this quarter, it means that during the late summer months of 2010, all the way until Election Day, we could be getting reports that, in addition to the rest of the country improving, the jobs are finally coming back, just as the Democrats had promised.

That is bound to have an effect on the economic outlook of voters, and sure to give a boost to Democrats who argue that none of it would have been possible had the Republicans successfully voted down the stimulus.

It's also the case that the Dow Jones, which I continue to believe is the only economic metric that the majority of Americans feel comfortable with, is currently hovering around 9,700 points, 3,000 points higher than it was less than 6 months ago. If by 2010, the Dow is comfortably above 10,000, I suspect that will have a psychological impact on voters worried about the economy. You don't have to be invested in the stock market to feel better about seeing a five-digit Dow average again.

It's also important to remember that health care and the economy will not continue to be the only issues on the agenda. The Senate has calendared immigration reform for December, with the intention of introducing the bill before the holidays, and beginning markup in January. That's right - just like health care, there will be a recess before the bill is passed, allowing for more town halls, and more inevitable town hall protests. But this time they'll be protesting immigration reform, not health care reform - imagine what the birthers and the health care screamers will look like when they are joined by the minutemen crowd, screaming about border control.

Karl Rove hung his hopes of a permanent Republican majority on the Hispanic vote, hoping that Republicans could help them realign with the GOP. But Barack Obama won nearly two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008, largely because the Republican party became obsessed with anti-immigrant rhetoric in the summer and fall of 2007. With the Republican party opposing immigration reform, and with town hall protesters aiming their vitriol, not at Obama, but at the Hispanic community, the GOP is poised to lose even more Hispanic support.

And don't forget that Republicans have already been forced to take a number of votes that are going to hurt them back home. Republicans who voted against the stimulus (that's everyone but the senators from Maine) also voted against roughly $250 billion in tax cuts. Last time I checked, Republican voters love tax cuts. If the White House includes tort reform in the health care bill, Republicans will have to vote against that too. Imagine that, a Republican opposing tort reform. It's going to sting back home.

There is still, of course, the risk of an enthusiasm gap, which analysts have also cited as a potential problem for Democrats in 2010. With Democrats relatively content, and with Republicans furious, the intensity is all on the right, the mirror opposite of the 2008 campaign.

But concluding today that Democrats will lack enthusiasm in 2010 is a major mistake. Barack Obama has not yet begun to fire up his base for the midterms. But when he stands up and gives one of his barn-burner speeches, when he calls on those who brought change to the Washington to make sure it stays that way, when he uses the infrastructure of his 2008 race to support and recruit, I have little doubt that Democrats will answer the call. It has been in the past, it will continue to be in the future, a terrible mistake to underestimate Barack Obama's ability to mobilize his base.

It's too early to make predictions about 2010, not knowing exactly what the environment will look like. Plenty predicted in 2007 that the 2008 race would be all about the Iraq war. But what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were arguing about that fall was entirely off the radar screen by the general election.

That said, here is my prediction: 2010 will be a victory for the Democratic party. We're bound to lose some seats in the House; we hold so many vulnerable seats, and are up against a steep historical trend. But that number could easily be a half a dozen or less, and among those lost, most will be Blue Dogs who have been more obstructionist from inside the party than their Republican victors could be from outside of it. More importantly, even the most conservative estimates show Democrats in a strong position to pick up a few seats in the Senate. That would be huge for the party, changing the dynamic so that Ben Nelson is no longer the most powerful man in Congress.

The crazies are going to get louder and louder. From a policy perspective, that's a challenge. From a politics perspective, it isn't. Never forget that American politics always presents a binary choice. The louder and more pervasive that fringe gets, the more they push Congressional Republicans to mimic them on the floor of the house, the more indistinguishable they become from the party itself. Frustrations with Democrats in Congress have been there in the past. In 2008, Nancy Pelosi's approval ratings were about as low as President Bush's, and Congress as a whole wasn't much better. Still, the Democrats won a Congressional landslide that November. The question is, with the fringe growing to become the only voice of the GOP, will those who are frustrated with Democrats really see the Republican party as a worthy alternative? My gut says no.