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Will 2010 Be Another 1994?

"Have you been in the South lately?" asks political prognosticator Charlie Cook. "The level of anti-Obama, anti-Democratic and anti-Congress venom is extraordinary," he says, "and with 59 Democrat-held seats in the region, 22 in or potentially in competitive districts, this is a very serious situation for Democrats. I have had several Democratic members from the region say the atmosphere is as bad or worse than it was in 1994."

I can't argue with the impressions of members. But I asked the crack poll team at The Washington Post to send me favorability numbers for the Democratic and Republican parties in 1994 and now. My hunch was that Democrats are looking a bit like they were in 1994, but that Republicans are looking way, way worse. That their attacks on Democrats have worked, but that they've dragged themselves down as well. I wasn't prepared, however, for these numbers:


That comes from the CBS/NYT poll, which shows Democrats outperforming their January 1994 selves, while Republicans are wildly underperforming their '90s predecessors. The numbers, however, were surprising enough that I wanted to check them again. So this comes from The Washington Post's poll.


Politics is generally viewed as a zero-sum game: When one party gains, the other loses. But Republicans have pursued a strategy turning politics into a negative-sum game: Both parties lose. They have effectively harmed the Democrats' agenda but done so at great cost to their own favorability numbers.

I'm not enough of an election wonk to know how that plays out. Maybe it simply creates anti-incumbent sentiment, and that harms the Democrats in November. But the comparisons to 1994 are missing something important. In 1994, Republicans managed to obstruct Clinton's agenda in a way that effectively established them as an alternative. In 2009, they are battling Obama's agenda in a manner that's totally discrediting their party.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 2, 2009; 8:24 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms , Polls  
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The majority of Southerners will tell you that they're independent. But they'll vote for the Republican every time.

Posted by: cjo30080 | October 2, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

As a Southerner in exile, I second that emotion. The alternate reality exists for real in that part of the world.

Posted by: scarlota | October 2, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Makes you wonder (and want to believe) whether this creates some space for some serious third party challenges in certain districts.

I know it is a pipe dream, and the powers that be would never allow it, but imagine if some moderate democrats and republicans got together and formed a third party with the intention of targeting select districts where favorability of both Democrats and Republicans was so low that they could fill the vacuum....Given the rotten state of our politics, I wouldn't be too surprised if such a party could win enough seats in this election to deny either major party an outright majority in the House.

Unfortunately, the paradox is that this probably has to be done by folks who are already in the existing party structure, or they won't be taken seriously by our excellent news media. And, of course, if they're already part of the establishment, why would they want to change this...

The other big issue is that the moderate Democrats are part of the problem and moderate Republicans don't exist..

Sigh...this is too depressing....

Posted by: AnonymousInMA | October 2, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

p.s. Ezra, I just noticed that your bar graphs don't go down to 0 on the y-axis scale...This really makes the Republican favorability numbers look deceptively lower than they really are.

Posted by: AnonymousInMA | October 2, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Taken as a pair, those are terrible bar graphs.

On the first one, blue/red represents 1994 vs. 2009, and there are separate sub-graphs for Republican and Democrat.

On the second graph, blue/red represents Democrat vs. Republican, and there are separate sub-graphs for 1993 vs. 2009.

Consistency, please!

Posted by: philarete | October 2, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Wishful thinking at its finest.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | October 2, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Ugh, I agree with the comment about the graphs. The use of the blue/Dem and the red/Republican, which is both common and present in the 2nd graph, has nothing to do with political party in the first graph, but when I saw it my mind sub.consciously thought it did. I saw the blue as Democratic and red as Republican.

Posted by: Jenn2 | October 2, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

It's still too early to say how 2010 plays out, because so much can still happen over the next year plus.

One factor that is worth watching is enthusiasm with party bases. Effectively the GOP is pursuing a base/partisan strategy right now. The net impact is that they will alienate moderate-independents and simply push them out of the equation. Under those conditions the contest becomes one of enthusiasm amongst the most partisan supporters. The GOP approach isn't to win converts right now, but rather to limit the size of the playing field so that they can capitalize in a low-turnout environment.

Part of the challenge with party perceptions in the aggregate is that they're only a rough measure of support for local reps (e.g. a person may hold a low view of a national party, but still vote for a local member of that national party in a local contest). This is one reason I suspect that Congress as a whole can have approvals in the 20-30 percent range, yet the turnover ratio in an election is still less than 10 percent.

In the Senate races in 2010 there is also the practical consideration that the GOP is defending more seats. I wouldn't be too surprised to see the GOP make some inroads in the House, but I'd be surprised if we saw a repeat of the 1994 mid-terms. Anyone's guess at this point.

Posted by: JPRS | October 2, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

One of the key differences between '93-'94 and today, I think, is that the Clinton adminstration was curiously tone-deaf to the political impact of many of its actions (gays in the military, a complex, government-centric health care reform proposal), while the Obama adminstration has been, extremely cautious (IMHO, too cautious) about taking actions which would ruffle anyone's feathers. Numerous surveys have shown that the vitriol toward the Democrats that Cook cites is almost exclusively a Southern phenomena, and despite the fact that it is un-pc to say it folks, the issue is race, race, race. I have no doubt that the GOP will gain seats in the South in 2010, and that some of the Blue Dogs Rahm Emanuel so carefully courted may lose their seats, but the more that Republicans become identified as a Southern party, the less appeal they will have in the rest of the country, because the stereotype of the backwards Southern/Appalachian redneck will even more unattractive as the population continues to diversify.

Posted by: exgovgirl | October 2, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

that's a compelling perspective, exgovgirl, and makes a lot of sense.

The Civil War is not very far in the past, and the seed of it was brought into the Union with slavery. From the beginning we've had this dirt to wash off. Perhaps we're still washing, perhaps not, but the Republican party would be a great baby to throw out with the bathwater.

Posted by: rosshunter | October 2, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

At first glance, the Republican approach currently seems to make no sense from a national perspective. But recall that the biggest hero of the GOP is still Reagan (misplaced, but real), and Reagan's most memorable comment was "government IS the problem". From this perspective, having a federal (and many states) government incapable of action is exactly what the GOP leaders think they want and most southerners are in hearty agreement. Race is an issue, but isn't the major issue. People are unhappy with their lives and their economy and they think it must be Washington that caused their problems. It is Faux Libertarianism to which they look.

When implicitly (and quite often explicitly) the GOP message is 'just say no', there is no basis for governance, good or bad. It is not that they want no change, but they want to roll back all the changes to some mythical past - quite often to the ante-bellum southern 'way of life' - pre-civil war.

These delusions are becomming permanent features. We can't 'deal with it' because there is no repealing of our past that would satisfy their craving for a different historical outcome over 150 years.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | October 2, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

To JimPortland: But if race isn't the major issue, why is it predominantly southerners who are inflammed against Democrats and Obama? Its not like the economy is great in the rest of the country - somehow double digit unemployment in California and Michigan doesn't cause anti-govenment sentiment.

Southerner's mouth the 'anti-government' line because the most federal govenment has twice - in the Civil War and during the Civil Right movement - come in and forced them to give up the legal structures of racism. The combination of the resentment of that force combined with a continued culture of racial polarization is the force that Republican's cultivated to take over the south beginning with Nixon's silent majority, and brought to full frution with Reagan in the 1980's. However, as you said, they are caught now in their own web, and they are going to have a difficult time disentangling from it in the end, though there may be the appearance of a few breakouts from time to time.

Posted by: exgovgirl | October 2, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

exgovgirl said: "To JimPortland: But if race isn't the major issue, why is it predominantly southerners who are inflammed against Democrats and Obama?"

The southerners lost both the (un)civil war and the civil rights movments in the 1960's. No other regional area holds the resentments of those loses to the same degree.

I say it is partly/largely about race, but not primarily because then (1860-1960) they consistently didn't want their own states to have to yield to federal law. The Confederacy was just that: not a union. There are many issues today (beyond race) where the south holds different opinions (in the aggregate) than the other regions. Labor unions is one. Taxation is another. Ability of states to withdraw from the union (or nullify its laws) is another. Religion in the public sphere is yet another. The 'southern way of life' was/is an expression of a different attitude of the people toward central government, social obligations, and the rule of law. Far more than just race alone.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | October 2, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Actually, what I'm reading on many progressive blogs is deep and abiding disappointment in the Democratic Party, and statements that they'll stay home.

For 2012, many are saying they'll vote any 3rd party available.

It's not about being "Southern."

It's about Dems not voting at all.

Charlie Cook's a pretty smart man, Ezra. Experience in trends that you can only dream of having. Pay attention to him.

Posted by: auntmo9990 | October 2, 2009 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Speaking personally, I am appalled at GOP negativity. I saw video of Republicans cheering when America lost its bid for the Olympics. I was appalled that the party would cheer against the United States of America for its own political reasons.

To me, that was just symptomatic of GOP's willingness to stop anything that might be good for the nation or the people in order to make political points.

Obviously Republicans will disagree with much of what is happening now, just as Democrats disagreed with much of what Bush did, but to be totally negative, to cheer against even positive things like the Olympics would have been, to refuse to strive for any kind of compromise, to refuse to recognize the will of the people who elected those now in office, seems small and mean to me.

Posted by: tinyjab40 | October 3, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Sorry Ezra,
It's more like 1994 than you think. The Republicans follow three steps. Step 1: Create volatility in the electorate (getting a major assist from the economy on this part); Step 2: Jazz up your base voters to drive conservative turnout (getting a major assist from Sens. Baucus and Conrad on this as they are demoralizing Democrats); Step 3: Make the election about conservative themes and then connect those themes to GOP candidates.
They are right on track. Their low party approval rating is irrelvant at this moment. If 2010 is an election about "out of control spending," the deficit, and "Washington being out of touch" then the GOP wins in a landslide. The Democrats HAVE TO TAKE CONTROL OF THE NATIONAL POLITICAL CONVERSATION. The media will not do it for them.

Posted by: phillycomment | October 3, 2009 6:39 PM | Report abuse

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