Post-Mortem: The Midterm “Recession Election,” and a Look Ahead to 2012

By Randy Myers

Republicans may have manhandled Democrats in the recent midterm election, but it’s probably too soon to assume their victory will carry over to a win in the White House in 2012, says political pundit David Wasserman, house editor of the Cook Political Report.

Addressing the 2010 SVIA Fall Forum, Wasserman attributed the Republican Party’s victory in November to the 9.6 percent unemployment rate that weighed on voters as they went to the polls. “Voters were very weary, tired, and absolutely frustrated,” added Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy. Duffy, who covers Senate and gubernatorial races, noted that since the United States started tracking out-of-work Americans 63 years ago, there have been only 30 months when the unemployment rate stood at or above 9.5 percent. Yet at the time of the election, it had been at or above 9.6 percent for 16 of the past 17 months.

While predicting a “hard road back” for Democrats, Wasserman also said it could be dangerous to extrapolate from the results of the midterm election how the 2012 presidential election will play out.

“History shows that midterm elections are terrible predictors of presidential elections,” he said. He noted that after the GOP picked up 8 Senate and 54 House seats in 1994, Bill Clinton was able to win a second term in the White House in 1996.

“I think President Obama has a better shot at reelection than current approval ratings would suggest,” Wasserman said. In part, he contended, that’s because there is no clearly identifiable leader of the Republican Party and no clear frontrunner for the party’s Presidential nomination. High-profile candidates such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney all have major flaws, he argued, which could pave the way for a second-tier Republican candidate to break through as a legitimate presidential contender.

Beyond the high unemployment rate, Duffy said Democrats also were hurt in the midterm elections by opposition to the party’s proposed cap-and-trade legislation aimed at reducing carbon in the atmosphere and by their passage of groundbreaking healthcare legislation, which many senior citizens viewed as an attack on Medicare. That hurt at the polls because seniors–who count themselves as Republicans rather than Democrats by a 59-to-39 margin–were one of the few groups that turned out in higher-than-usual numbers for the midterm election, Duffy noted.

Still, Duffy contended, the election wasn’t a referendum on the new healthcare act, with election polls showing 48 percent in favor of its repeal and 47 percent in favor of keeping it as is or expanding it.