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September 23, 2009

Warning Signs for Democrats, Not Predictions

In a guest post, Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report responds to Thomas Holbrook's assertions yesterday that it's too early to talk about Democratic losses in next year's the midterm elections.

One of the more frustrating aspects of being a political analyst is that we are fair game for anyone who wants reduce hundreds or even thousands of words of analysis, boil it down to a sentence or a paragraph or a single thought, turning it into a straw man for them to knock down. I guess it just an occupational hazard.

Fair enough, but since I didn't make any definitive prediction, didn't even come close, and usually don't do actual predictions until the final weeks or months before an election, his whole piece is pretty pointless. In 2006 for example, we began writing that it was becoming more likely than not that Republicans would lose their House Majority, we didn't start writing that until the first week of August of 2006, which was pretty early by our standards for making predictions, (and pretty much the first anywhere to be saying that), in the Senate up until the very end we were saying 50-50 chance of the Senate flipping, which it did by the narowest of margins. We don't and never have made predictions a year or more out before an election.

I did enjoy looking at Holbrook's charts on presidential approval rating and election outcomes, but noted that roughly half of his data points came from elections that were not true first-term, mid-term elections, that is a newly elected incumbent who party is facing a midterm election in the first term. Even the most cursory look at midterm elections reveals that first-term and second-term midterm elections are totally different animals, apples and oranges, not to be compared.. they just confuse things.

Making matters more aggravating is that Holbrook acts as if our entire analysis is based on just the president's approval ratings. In combing through my twice weekly columns, I am not entirely sure how he could have missed the discussion of Democratic leaned-party identification dropping from a 17-point advantage in the Gallup Poll in January to just a five point advantage in August (roughly 30,000 interviews per month), one of the most dramatic eight-month declines in modern history, or the discussion of seats, that Democrats have 54 House members in seats that were in GOP hands four years ago, 84 members in House seats that voted for either George W. Bush in 2004 or John McCain in 2008, 48 that went for both McCain and Bush. It's not hard to see how 40 seats, the current level of the Democratic margin in the House, could be breached among those 54 previously Republican and 84 GOP-presidential voting districts.

The fact is that the difference between where Democrats stand today and where they stood in the minority back before the 2006 election is the product of absolutely perfect political environments in 2006 and 2008. Like orchids or some other tropical plant growing in a greenhouse, with perfect soil, water, temperature and sun, Democrats benefited enormously from a series of debilitating Republican scandals (DeLay, Abramoff, Ney and Foley to name a few) and the Iraq War being at it's most controversial point. Independents favored Democrats by an 18-point margin in that election, truly extraordinary. By 2008, the War was getting better but the economy was in the toilet, the time for a change sentiment, for the second consecutive election, was perfect for Democrats. Democrats also benefited greatly from a big turnout about minorities and younger voters excited about Obama's candidacy. How do you replicate that when his name is on the ballot.

We obviously do not know what President Obama's job approval rating will be in October and November of next year or anything else that will be going on. But even if the economy improves substantially next year, and my guess is that it will, and the Dow does as well, as some of the commentors mentioned, is it likely to replicate the kind of environment for Democrats that gave them these most at risk seats?

In short, for the last couple of months I have written numerous columns going into each of these points, making the case for why Democrats might have a tough midterm election. These were painted as warnings not predictions and hardly based on the sole item of Obama's job approval rating.

Like most of you, I am a loyal daily reader of Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, it's the best site on the web for what it does, and I have said so for years. But if you see someone attacking what I write, take a look at my actual columns on, and you might often see some of the criticisms seem a little lame when read in context rather than cherrypicked for setting up a straw man.

Update: Holbrook responds saying, "I liked Cook's original column and certainly didn't see my analysis as an attack on it. His column was full of interesting and stimulating ideas, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future."


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