The Midterm Backlash: Think 1982, Not 1994

From the moment Barack Obama cleared 270 electoral votes on election night last November, this moment was inevitable: Nine months into his presidency, Republicans are ratcheting up the comparisons between 2010 and 1994 and the media is starting to ask, ‘What if?’

In a story in Sunday’s New York Times, Representative Tom Price, a Georgian who heads a particularly conservative faction of House Republicans, declared that he has “no doubt” that his party will pick up the 40 seats needed to wrest control of the chamber from the Democrats next year.

To be sure, the G.O.P. isn’t inventing the idea that 2010 will be a Republican year. It probably will be. In 2006 and 2008, very few Democratic incumbents in the House or Senate even came close to losing their seats, so mighty was the Democratic tide. But already, early ’10 polls show numerous Democratic incumbents in serious trouble. G.O.P. gains, particularly in the House, are very likely. 

Price and his fellow Republicans would like to believe that this is because of a backlash against Obama and his “liberal” agenda—that this spring’s tea parties and this summer’s town hall mobs represent a mounting public clamor for conservatism, and that the 2008 election will ultimately prove an aberration. This is where their logic, and the wishful ’94 analogies, goes off the rails.

Republicans are well positioned to gain seats next year for one reason: Democrats control the White House—and everything else in Washington. So the ’10 elections will be a referendum on Obama and his congressional allies—a recipe for automatic losses next fall. (Add in the fact that Democrats gained so many marginal seats in the ’06 and ’08 elections, and it’s only easier for the G.O.P. to score pick-ups in ’10.) There’s nothing new about this; it’s how midterm elections have gone for the sitting president’s party for decades—and the few exceptions can be explained easily.

So yes, it’s tempting to see this year as another 1994. The basic dynamic that Obama’s election established—Democratic president with a Democratic Congress—was last seen in ’94, when Newt Gingrich and Co. picked up 52 seats to claim a House majority.

But there were other important dimensions to the G.O.P.’s ’94 triumph that are plainly missing today.

Perhaps the most important is the state of the Republican Party brand. Today, it is poisonous, as it has been for roughly the last four years. By a 53-25 percent margin, voters have an unfavorable view of the G.O.P., according to a poll released last week. Fewer than 30 percent of voters believe Republicans in Congress are acting in good faith. And even though the G.O.P. has made blanket opposition to Obama’s health care push a key component of their comeback strategy, voters still trust the president more on the issue, by a 47-31 margin.

In other words, Republicans haven’t done anything since Obama’s election to alter the dreadful image that caused them so much harm in the last two elections. This won’t inhibit them from making some gains next year—again, that’s just the nature of midterm elections—but it will limit the extent of those gains. Voters’ unpleasant memories of the Bush era are still fresh enough to give them pause about casting their lot with the same old G.O.P.

The situation was much different in ’94. Then, voters still had fairly pleasant memories of the most recent Republican era. They’d re-elected Ronald Reagan in a 49-state landslide in 1984 and elected George H.W. Bush in another landslide in 1988. And recently as the spring of 1991, just after the first Gulf War, Bush had been sitting on a 91 percent approval rating. The G.O.P.’s defeat in the 1992 wasn’t a wholesale rejection of Reagan-Bush philosophy; it was a response to a nasty recession.

This made the public of 1994 far more receptive to the G.O.P. than the electorate now is. And Republicans helped their cause by unveiling their “Contract with America,” a document that few Americans read but that helped create the impression that Republicans were interested in more than blind opposition to the president.

There was also the realignment factor. About a dozen Southern House seats that had been ripe for a G.O.P. takeover for decades all flipped at once in ’94. In terms of ideology, these districts were already very conservative and Republican-friendly. Bill Clinton’s alliance with Democratic liberals in Congress convinced voters in these districts, who had inherited Democratic allegiances from their parents and grandparents but who had been siding with Republican presidential candidates for years, that it was time to vote a straight ticket for the G.O.P. 

A much better model for the ’10 midterms can probably be found in 1982, Reagan’s first midterm. As with the G.O.P. now, the Democratic label was in disrepute then, a victim of the excesses of the New Deal/Great Society consensus that had defined the party—and governed the country—for several decades. But thanks to a brutal recession (unemployment hit 10 percent in the fall of ’82) and the natural order of midterms, Democrats were still able to pick up 26 House seats in the fall of ’82.

Something like this seems likely next fall. Unemployment will probably still be high and voters will be inclined to send Obama and his party a message. A 20-seat gain for the G.O.P. is hardly unfathomable. But that’s half of what they’ll need to replicate the feat of ’94. It will be an adjustment, not a revolution.

The Midterm Backlash: Think 1982, Not 1994