"They're counting on your silence. They're counting on your amnesia. They're counting on your apathy. They're counting on young people staying home and union members staying home and black folks staying home and middle-class families staying home."
President Obama made this comment at a rally in Philadelphia on Sunday night. Quite extraordinary. How has the President Obama gotten to this point, pitting one group against another for the sake of electoral gain?
I think there are four reasons.
First, he thought he liked Republicans, but it turns out that he doesn't so much. So, he is inclined to think the worst.
Second, his advisors are total nincompoops, having managed to obliterate, completely and utterly, the post-partisan image that drew independents and Republican leaners to his voting coalition just two years ago. As Mark Halperin put it:
With the exception of core Obama Administration loyalists, most politically engaged elites have reached the same conclusions: the White House is in over its head, isolated, insular, arrogant and clueless about how to get along with or persuade members of Congress, the media, the business community or working-class voters.
Third, his speechwriters have lost their mojo. I’m as much a fan of a good partisan hit job as the next guy, but there is a fine but decisive line between brilliant and pathetic. The difference between the partisan dreck spewing from Obama and, say, FDR’s Fala Speech is like the difference between these two guys:
They’re both dressed the part, but one of them just looks…out of place.
Fourth, and most relevant for October 2010, the Democratic party is totally and completely desperate at this point.
Let’s review the details. The latest report from the Gallup generic ballot finds the GOP maintaining a double-digit lead among likely voters, built upon a more than 20-point advantage among independent voters and a projected electorate that is more Republican than anything seen since at least 1946. It’s probably more Republican than even that. I think you’d have to go back to 1928 to find such a pro-Republican voting base. And dig just a little bit into the Gallup numbers and you will find, contra our post-partisan commander in chief, the GOP wins even in Gallup's “higher turnout” model, which assumes a turnout level that substantially exceeds the typical rate for midterms. In fact, even if all registered voters come out, Gallup still predicts a Republican victory.
Well surely, you respond, President Obama has done as much, if not more, than Franklin Delano Roosevelt did with the famed 73rd Congress. Why isn’t he out there, shouting at the top of his lungs about how much his administration has done for these independent voters who are breaking decisively against him? Well…
More than 7 in 10 Americans use a word or phrase that is clearly negative when providing a top-of-mind reaction to the federal government.
A Sept. 20-21 USA Today/Gallup poll asked respondents what they would say "if someone asked you to describe the federal government in one word or phrase." The accompanying chart shows the results in graphic form, with the words or phrases displayed according to how frequently they are mentioned.
Overall, 72% of responses about the federal government are negative, touching on its inefficiency, size, corruption, and general incompetence, with the most common specific descriptions being "too big," "confused," and "corrupt."
Here is the word cloud Gallup put together for public responses, and you’ll notice that there are very few silver linings in it for Democrats.
What exactly is this going to mean for the Democrats? The following map should provide a good sense. It depicts the East North Central division of the United States -- basically the Great Lakes area. Congressional districts are colored in according to the political dynamic of the midterm: red districts are Republican, blue are safely Democratic (according to the House ratings from RealClearPolitics), and purple are Democratic-held districts that RealClearPolitics has ranked as being vulnerable to a Republican takeover.
There is a pretty straightforward pattern here. Democrats from (moving east to west) Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Flint, Indianapolis, Gary, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and East St. Louis are safe. Why? Because their districts are stocked with partisan Democrats -- college kids, union workers, and African Americans. The fortunes of the rest of these Midwestern Democrats depend ultimately upon independents and soft Republicans in the suburbs or rural areas, and these voters have moved overwhelmingly against President Obama and his party. In other words, the Democratic base that has been in place for 40 years is still solid for the President, but the rest of the region is primed to go Republican. In the Great Lakes region, the Democrats have been reduced to little more than the Mondale coalition.
It's worth noting that the gerrymandering of congressional districts means that union workers, African Americans, and college kids are basically congregated in those dozen or so safe congressional districts. President Obama can gin up the base all he wants, but in districts like OH-15 and WI-8 it's unaffiliated swing voters who make the difference. In other words, the desperation of the president's strategy is matched only by its inefficiency.