How much trouble are the Democrats in? That’s an excellent question, and I’m glad I asked it.
Before we answer it though, first a little background. I think Larry Sabato is the best left-leaning independent pollster out there. His numbers are always solid, and his analysis is usually spot-on. Although there was that time back in 2004 he was doing everything he could to show how John Kerry was going to win — even though his own numbers didn’t support his conclusion. But, hey, that was years ago and we all have our weak moments. He’s still one of my top three or four go-to guys.
The latest issue of Sabato’s Crystal Ball showed up in my inbox this morning, and I read it straight away as I always do. Today’s topic was the 1980 election, and how an incumbent President got spanked and so did his party. Then he went on a bit longer about the 1992 election, and how an incumbent President got spanked and so did his party.
Of course, the whole thing included the usual disclaimer:
The  hostage crisis provides a lesson for election-watchers: We have no idea at this point what event might change next year’s election.
True dat. Of course, election surprises usually don’t help an already-floundering incumbent. The breakdown of the hostage negotiations with Iran sank Jimmy Carter’s last hopes in the last days of the campaign. And Cap Weinberger got tangled up in the Iran-Contra investigation just four days before George H.W. Bush’s ignominious defeat. Both men were probably doomed anyway — but those events do show that big surprises rarely act like a life preserver for a drowning man.
Come to think of it, the biggest surprise in 1992 was the rise and fall and near-re-rise of Ross Perot, none of which did Bush any good. Perot managed to make Bill Clinton look like the most trouble-free of the lot of them. Now that’s a surprise for you.
Anyway, what big surprise could help President Obama next year? The sudden discovery of a giant vein of gold and oil and Twinkies just feet below the surface of every battleground state? Hell, the EPA wouldn’t let him dig it up. Peggy Noonan called him “snakebit,” and I think that description might just stick.
So why is Sabato going on already about incumbents in trouble? As a warning to his fellow Democrats about their chances of winning back the House or even keeping the Senate. Here are few select passages:
With Carter captaining the Democratic ship, election night in 1980 was Titanic-esque. Democrats lost 12 Senate seats and 33 House seats…
Since 1860, an incumbent president has never lost the White House in the same election that his party won control of either house of Congress from the other party. Similarly, the House and the Senate flipping in opposite directions has never happened in the same election in the same timeframe. In other words, regardless of what happens in the presidential race, a scenario in which Democrats captured the House next year and Republicans captured the Senate would be, in a word, historic.
So history tells us that Democrats need Obama to roar back and win a second term in order to flip the House. And even that might not be enough…
…Like 1980 (and now), the country was in a funk, and voters took out their ire on the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush. However, Republicans netted a 10-seat gain in the House, thanks in part to redistricting and changing regional politics (the Democrats retained the House but then lost it in the 1994 GOP wave). If Obama gets Carter-ized next year — or Bush-ized — Democrats, like the GOP 20 years ago, might still pick up a few seats. But almost assuredly not 25.
…If he [Obama] does well, his fellow Democrats should have a decent chance to also do well. If he doesn’t, he’ll open perhaps not a bottomless pit underneath Democratic candidates, but maybe a sinkhole. In any event, the Democrats’ success, or failure, next year cannot be separated from that of their standard-bearer, the president.
Everything is riding on Obama’s performance in the election, isn’t it?
I think the message to congressional Democrats here is: “Get behind your President. Running from Obama won’t improve your chances of keeping your seat. And sniping at him will hurt his chances — and voters will bring you down with him.”
That’s probably solid advice, too. But will downticket Democrats heed it?
As a whole, it would make sense for the Democrat caucus to stick with Obama. But individual members might find it well-nigh irresistible to keep their distance, especially as they start getting earfuls from their constituents next spring and summer.
In fact, I can’t think of a single example of rank & file House members standing by their man en masse, after the public had soured on him. So if Obama’s numbers stay in the tank next year, his worst critics might be the desperate members of his own party.
I’ll bring the popcorn.
CORRECTION: This Crystal Ball was written by Sabato’s House Editor, Kyle Kondik.