2010 Threat to Democrats Comes From Three Directions

By Dan Balz
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three forces threaten Democrats in the 2010 elections: populist anger on the right, disaffection in the middle and potential disillusionment on the left.

Little more than a year out, the political landscape for the coming midterm elections looks decidedly more favorable for Republicans than in either of the past two elections -- hardly a surprise, given the shellacking they took in 2006 and 2008. Whether their expectations for 2010 are met or exceeded, however, depends on the confluence of the political forces that have been building since President Obama's inauguration.

Today, Republicans expect gains across the board. As GOP pollster Neil Newhouse put it, "In the last two election cycles, our candidates have been campaigning into the wind. Assessing the political environment right now, it sure looks like we're going to have a nice little breeze at our back."

But strategists aren't certain whether that breeze will turn into a political gale. Whatever problems Obama and the Democrats are having, Republicans aren't wildly popular, either. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped engineer the 1994 GOP victory, offered an astute analysis when asked to compare the climate today with conditions heading into 1994.

"People are more frightened than they were in '93 and '94 -- both by the radicalism of the administration and by the economy," Gingrich said. But he added: "They're more skeptical of Republicans than they were in '93 and '94. The aftereffect of '06 and '08 is there's not a rush to Republicans."

The most demonstrable political uprising of the past few months has been the populist anger seen at town hall meetings during the August congressional recess and expressed through conservative talk radio, television and blogs.

For Republicans, this energy has been a welcome pick-me-up after the demoralization that set in during the last two years of President George W. Bush's administration. One likely effect of it will be to boost conservative turnout and produce an electorate potentially quite different than that of 2008.

There are aspects of this movement that could dampen the potential benefits for Republicans. One is the Perot-like quality to some protests, which is to say that some of the anger among these Americans is aimed at both parties and at Washington, rather than just at Obama. Republicans were skillful in 1993-94 in catering to the Perot voters. But Republican leaders today cannot automatically count on all the angry populists for enthusiastic support.

Some of the loudest voices on the right are virulently anti-Obama and see the world in starkly different terms than much of the rest of the electorate. The Democracy Corps, a liberal organization headed by Democrats Stan Greenberg and James Carville, sponsored focus groups among very conservative Republicans and concluded: "The Republican base voters are not part of the continuum leading to the center of the electorate; they truly stand apart."

Republican leaders might discount any conclusions that come from such partisans as Greenberg and Carville. But there is no doubt that a small portion of the electorate sees Obama in the most extreme terms. Channeling the anger on the right in a way that doesn't turn off voters in the center will be one of the GOP's challenges.

Possible disaffection among independent voters may be even more critical in shaping the 2010 political landscape. "Right now, I believe we as Democrats must be most concerned about disaffection in the middle," said strategist Tad Devine. "Middle-class voters put their faith in our party and its leaders in the last two elections, and that faith needs to be vindicated by concrete results."

Independent voters were instrumental in giving Democrats victories in 2006 and 2008. Over the summer, they shifted away from Obama. His approval rating in June was 65 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. By September, just 49 percent of independents approved of the job he was doing.

Economic insecurity, fears about the growth of government spending and the size of the deficit, confusion about health care and a concern that Obama has tried to do too much too quickly have added to independents' erosion in confidence.

Obama's advisers recognize the discomfort now felt by many independents. But White House senior adviser David Axelrod said: "The ones who were predisposed to us in the first place, I don't think they've drifted away and are not coming back."

Democrats must hope he is right.

Finally, Obama risks disillusionment on the left in two areas. One is health care, where progressives have mounted a noisy campaign to make certain a public option is included in any final legislation. White House officials doubt that liberals will sink the bill if it does not include a robust public option, but they face some delicate negotiations.

There is greater potential for disillusionment on the left over Afghanistan. Obama is nearing a decision on whether to substantially increase the size of U.S. forces there. Progressives oppose a big increase in troops and an open-ended commitment. A backlash on the left could mean lower Democratic turnout in the midterm elections.

Gingrich sees the situation next year as potentially dire for the Democrats, especially if unemployment remains high. "These guys could easily preside over the [British] Labor Party's 'winter of discontent' in 1979," he said, referring to the labor and economic unrest that brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power.

Devine sees the potential for an economic turnaround next year that could help cushion against big Democratic losses. "If the economy turns, the president and Democrats in Congress will have a strong platform to run on next year, and we will have a great chance to use the populist anger on the right to marginalize the Republicans in the midterm elections," he said.

Democrats know they need things to change, whether an economic rebound, enactment of a health care bill that proves economically popular or brighter forecast for Afghanistan. Those are all big "ifs," which is why Democrats begin the 2010 cycle on the defensive.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company