Never mind the talk of tsunamis and tidal waves, last Tuesday’s results revealed some storm clouds ahead for both parties. (Okay, I promise to stop sounding like the political Weather Channel.)
Let’s start with the Democrats. Beyond the obvious, such as losing independents by 16 points and moving backward with nearly every major demographic group compared to the last two elections, Democrats should be wary of five other pitfalls.
First, call them the Pelosi Democrats. Strategists were shocked last week to learn that the speaker plans to run again for party leader. The Democratic leadership team is out of step with many districts in the South, Midwest and West. About half of the Republicans gains last week were from districts that John McCain won in 2008 and that elected a Democratic House member. Now in the hands of the GOP, they will not easily flip back to candidates closely aligned with the Siren of San Francisco.
Next there’s the 2012 electoral map. Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona are among the states that will gain seats before the next election, while others like Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New York will lose. At the presidential level, it means many of the states Obama won in 2008 will lose clout in the Electoral College, while those where Republicans performed well will gain votes.
Third, beyond presidential politics, Democrats also struggle with congressional reapportionment. Post-2010 Census seat gains in key states could help cushion the GOP’s House majority for the next several cycles.
“Republicans fully control redistricting in 15 states, including the battlegrounds of Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin," the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar wrote last week. “They control the mapmaking for 193 House districts, compared to 44 for the Democrats,”
Fourth, Democrats no longer enjoy the money advantage they held over the past several cycles. Not only have groups like American Crossroads and American Action Network helped close the gap unions provide for Democrats, but GOP gains in Congress means party committees, like the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), will out raise the Democrats in 2012. Typically the majority party in Congress receives about 60 percent of PAC contributions. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee enjoyed that type of advantage in 2008 and 2010. With Republicans back in the House majority, expect them to recapture the money edge.
Finally, compared to the last two cycles, 2012 in the Senate looks particularly challenging for the Democrats. Of the 33 senators up for reelection, only 10 are Republicans and 23 are Democrats.
Yet 2010 also revealed some Republican soft spots. Consider turnout. Republicans did well for two reasons in 2010. First, independents swung against Democrats by that gaping 16-point margin.
But the composition of the electorate also favored the GOP. About 41.5 percent of the voting age population turned out last week, according to professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University, compared to 61.6 percent in 2008 – roughly a 30 percent drop between the presidential and midterm elections. The people who turned out at lower rates – younger voters, African Americans and Latinos are higher propensity Democratic supporters. They will show up in higher numbers in two years. And unless something changes, they will not support GOP candidates.
Long term, the Latino vote is an ongoing Republican vulnerability. Republicans elected three new Hispanic office holders (Senator-elect Marco Rubio from Florida, as well as newly elected governors Susana Martinez from New Mexico and Brian Sandoval from Nevada). But strength among Hispanic voters in other races was mixed. Weakness among Latinos probably cost Republicans Senate seats in Nevada and Colorado, and perhaps even California.
Third, if the economy improves, GOP strategists will have to closely watch the Obama Republicans – the over 50 districts now held by the GOP that Obama won in 2008. These lawmakers had smoother sailing in 2010 because of favorable political winds; 2012 might be a different story. Just like Republicans beat about 75 percent of the Democrats in McCain districts this year, many of the Obama Republicans could face tough sledding in two years.
Fourth, Republicans may have run out of room on the electoral map. There are a dozen or less (depending on the final tallies) Democratic incumbents left that represent districts won by Republicans in the last presidential election (there were just under 50 before last Tuesday). These are normally fertile political hunting grounds. But 2010 considerably thinned the herd.
Finally, no one knows what the Republican presidential primary will produce. The GOP might nominate more candidates like Christine O’Donnell that stand for conservative principles, but lack electoral crossover appeal. Some in the GOP would rather lose and stay 100 percent true to a particular issue agenda. If that mindset prevails, Nancy Pelosi will take back the speaker’s gavel and join Barack Obama at a reelection party in 2012.