Sunday, September 19, 2010

U.S. Midterms - What are the Democrats Prospects?

Most accounts of the Democrats prospects suggest a bleak midterm election result.  Until far right Christine O'Donnell (who once claimed to have dabbled in witchcraft) won the Republican nomination in Delaware over a moderate, the conventional wisdom was increasingly suggesting the Republicans could win both the House and the Senate.

I have followed all this but noted months ago that surveys reported again and again that the Republicans were more disliked than the Democrats.  The assumption has been that the declining economy and slumping income meant that this would be a very bad year for Democrats.  However, never before in a situation like this has the opposition party been so disliked.

Now there is an intriguing new analysis from Barry Pump, a grad student in political science at the University of Washington, that suggests we should indeed pay close attention to the survey evidence on the unpopularity of the Republican brand.

The argument is simple:
I’ve been looking at the low Republican favorability rating for a long time and always suggesting to friends who ask me about it that it’s more important than we think. People don’t vote for people they hate. But they may hold their nose and vote for people they dislike less.
And from a second post: theoretical argument is that people don’t vote for parties they hate. They vote for the party they dislike the least relative to the other party. The leading counter argument, and the one that has pretty much dominated the narrative is different. That argument goes: because the economy is terrible, people will vote for the opposition party regardless of how much they dislike them. In other words, it’ll be a referendum election on the economy, and the economy stinks so Democrats will lose a bunch of seats, probably even the majority in the House. 
In order to predict how well parties should perform in the upcoming election analysts typically use polls on the generic Democrat or Republican ballot question. But Pump believes that more attention should be paid to the net favourability polls which report that the Republican Party is far more disliked than the Democratic Party.  Look at the bars on the far right of this graphic (Republicans are red) for the most recent party standings on this:

Mr. Pump compared the predictive value in past elections of the favourability surveys with the generic ballot. He acknowledges that there are data limitations on the analysis but concludes:

So what can we take away from this little discussion?
First, we’ve never been in a situation until now — as far as we have data to show it — where both parties were disliked but one party was disliked far more than another. We’ve also never been in a situation where the difference between the favorability rankings of the two parties was as great as it is now. (That’s from the first graph.)

Second, we’ve yet to be in a situation until now — as far as we have data to show it — where the favorability rankings of the two parties were so discordant with the generic ballot.

Third, given this new territory and the uncertainty of estimates made so far away from election day, analysts don’t know as much as we’d like about where things stand in US politics.

Fourth, there appears to be a puzzle about voter decision making embedded in all of this: under what conditions will voters choose a party they profoundly dislike over the party they merely dislike? And is a dismal economy one of those conditions?

And fifth, I’m inclined to think that while Democrats will lose many seats on Election Day, those losses will be tempered by the fact that the Republican Party “brand” has been deeply tarnished over the last six years and many voters don’t think the party is ready to govern again.