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The incredible obviousness of the Democrats' political fortunes

What drives votes-_1279307900243.jpeg

The topic du jour appears to be the Obama paradox. How, some writers are asking, can the Democrats be both passing a lot of legislation and be headed for a defeat at the polls?

But there's no contradiction. No paradox. Instead, there's unity. Oneness. Om. This is night following day. Recall my article last Sunday on the determinants of elections. In particular, recall Gary Jacobson's equation for midterm elections, which uses presidential approval, change in real disposable income and the number of seats the majority holds (political scientists call this "exposure," because each seat you hold is a seat you can lose).

Democrats won their massive majority because of an economic collapse. They've passed so much legislation because they have a massive majority based on an economic collapse. But the economic collapse isn't over. And having a lot more seats than the other party means 1) voters blame you for the condition of the country, and 2) you have a lot of seats to lose. What the bad economy and the huge majority giveth, the bad economy and the huge majority taketh away. Om.

If there's a tension here, it's in the way that public opinions and the system interact -- or, more specifically, the way they don't. You can look at this and ask why Democrats passed all this legislation that made them unpopular. But if Democrats had sat around and done nothing after the stimulus, does anyone think they'd be more popular? On some level, Democrats understand that if people's incomes had gone up over the last year, their agenda would be popular enough, but that in the presence of persistent joblessness, they're going to lose the election. The only thing to do in the meantime is try and pass legislation that'll make the country better off. That's what they've done, or at least what they think they've done.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 16, 2010; 3:24 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Next: Research desk responds: How fast has the stimulus rolled out?


Why aren't you reporting what the change in real disposable income has been over the past year? Turns out its -0.2% from May 2009 to May 2010 (the most recent month) but has been growing since at least October 2009, such that over the last 8 months real disposable income has risen 2% in aggregate terms and 1.5% per capita. Its not clear form the graph exactly which measure is being used, but either way the continuation of the trend from the past 8 months (since the likely end of official recession) would put the Democrats at or above the 50% line. That seems like a useful thing to mention

Posted by: rwclayton7 | July 16, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Looking at the points on that scatter plot, one could almost draw it the exact opposite diagonal way.

Posted by: tbnews2 | July 16, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

The only open question is how many seats the Dems (net) lose. Some GOP seats will be won by Dems. More Dem. seats will be won by Goopers.

Losing the House majority seems very unlikely, but the vost vulnerable would seem to be Blue Dogs. They get what they deserve because their votes were really GOP votes in disguise. I won't miss them and the Dem. party may actually gain some backbone from seeing that failing to act has a real price. The House Dem. blue dogs are the last vestige of the old Republican party, but with no prospect of ever being accepted by the GOP as anything other than what they are: so-called moderates that are captive by corp interests but not conservatives (of either the Palin-Tea Partiers or real conservatives of the old-time variety). Moderate is Librul in the current GOP world view.

The Senate is equally volatile. But the key isn't the majority (very unlikely to change) but the magic 60 break-filibuster number. Unless the tooth fairy changes some GOP minds into being legislators instead of nay-sayers, the Senate will be the full-time repository for do-nothingism.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 16, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Your view is always too much bias towards left.. First thing it is not true that Reb creates the mess.. it is leftist view... Dem including now POTUS Mr. Obama resists at this first place to restrict Fannie Mae... I live in bay area and seen the greediness of public.. people brought houses left and right which values more than 60-70 times of their annual income and there are huge percentage of people brought even second or third house... now blame it on Repubs or Bank is very easy... and anyone who understand little finance easily get the this fin. reform is eatra burden on consumer.. Yes, it is true no one no what happened behind the scene.. but please do not argue that BP was not capable of stop the leak at very first place.. yes they will pay 20B.. but how much they get.. there is no technology b/k thro in 80 days... even for health care.. I have first hand exp.. if I don't have health ins.. for a simple blood test.. hospital billed me (by error as I have ins).. more than 3K.. but as soon as they put my ins info.. the bill amount reduce to 600 USD only.. in the name of contact between ins company and hospital (and the hospital is one of the best and full leftist)...

Posted by: Ind_View | July 16, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

@IV: First thing it is not true that Reb creates the mess.

First thing--you are dead wrong. Who controlled the white house and the congress for most of the 8 years before the financial collapse? Need a hint?

And didn't Bush and the republicans have AMPLE TIME TO FIX FANNIE AND FREDDIE WHEN THEY WERE IN POWER?

"people brought houses left and right which values more than 60-70 times of their annual income and there are huge percentage of people brought even second or third house"

Did those people come in with cash in hand to buy those houses OR DID BANKS AND MORTGAGE COMPANIES MAKE LOTS OF LOANS (and accompanying fees) THAT THEY SHOULD HAVE KNOWN WOULD NEVER BE REPAID? What happened to lending standards? No one was holding a gun to the heads of bankers to make these loans.

"but please do not argue that BP was not capable of stop the leak at very first place.."

Are you really arguing that BP could have stopped the oil gusher in the gulf and DECIDED TO JUST LET IT FLOW FOR 2 MONTHS even though they have to pay a fine FOR EVERY BARREL OF OIL SPILLED? Really? REALLY??

Posted by: srw3 | July 16, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

You say Obama was elected as an outgrowth of an economic collapse under Bush. In part, yes. In part, it was also because the GOP ran someone who was the equivalent of a Gore or a Kerry. Moreover, due to a lot of unhappiness with Bush and the GOP in general, and the public's predisposition to try a different course with different leadership. To swing the pendulum.

It was also a function of Obama being a very strong campaigner with intelligence and an attractive personality. It didn't hurt that his track record was slight, and his message was "post racial" and "post partisan". Many millions of us who are just tired of racial tension, partisan antics, pettiness, and the huge influence of various special and monied interests at the tiller of the ship of state. We though Obama would be a refreshing change of pace.

I think Barack enabled voters to create their own impressions of what he would be like as the President. We went for his brand image and projected our hopes on him.

Voting for Obama, for many, did not indicate a strong endorsement of the kinds of things he has advocated since the election. I think he has gone off in directions that (very) many are leery of. I'm not into the whole "closet Socialist" thing, but I am suspicious of ever-growing government, and ridiculous spending, and (most of all) the absence of an articulated strategy for where he would lead society and the economy, or even the executive branch.

Early on, I would have had him say, "I won; that means I can and will listen to the voice of the people on priorities and will work toward the best outcomes for the most citizens." Instead, we got essentially, "I won; that means I get to decide."

Well, OK, President Obama, you DO get to decide --- if you can get your majority party to go along. That part is true. It is common to hear, "Elections have consequences." I would add, "If those consequences are unpopular, there are more elections."

Posted by: TerryOtt | July 16, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

Kudos, Ezra. A very zen post. I recommend again, to anyone, the excellent "My History Can Beat Up Your Politics" podcast by Bruce Carlson. The podcast is free, and excellent. Each podcast puts current political events in a historical context, and the conclusions are very compelling. While Ezra seems to shrug with a zen like peace that Democrat losses in 2010 are inevitable, and a product of historical patterns rather than a realignment of the country (true), but almost everything in politics can benefit from that kind of analysis.

That being said, trends sometimes break different ways. The Democrats are likely to lose pretty good, just because they simply have the most to lose--and though incumbency is power, it's also easy to run against, because you can attack your opponent based on what they've did recently, while attacks on you, as a fresh-faced idealist running to reshape Washington, tend to seem strained and desperate. Remember Hillary (or Republicans, one of them) floating reports that Obama has had a lust for the presidency since some 4th grade report saying he wanted to be president? Attacks against the fresh-faced idealist are hard . . .

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | July 16, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse


Could you give specifics on what you consider has been Obama's "ridiculous spending" and "ever-growing government"?

I'm also puzzled as to how you're unclear on his strategy for "leading society and the economy, or even the executive branch", but at the same time you're clear he's a "closet socialist"?

OK, so RE: "ridiculous spending":
Obama's been in charge for 16 months. 2010 will be first FY budget for which he's responsible. US Fed Budget starts 10/1 for following FY. 2009 Budget started 10/1/2008. CBO Report for 1st Qtr 2009 (Oct-Dec 2008) already shows $485 billion Federal Deficit ($378 billion higher than 2008) & 44% decrease in Corp tax revenues, from $93 to $51 billion (Bush/GOP Tax Subsidies & Loopholes. In other words, before Obama was sworn in, Bush already ran up a $485 billion 2009 Budget Deficit thru Dec 08!

CBO 1/8/2009 Report:
"The federal fiscal situation in 2009 will be dramatically worse than it was in 2008. Under the assumption that current laws and policies (GOP/Bush) remain in place (that is, not accounting for any new legislation), CBO estimates that the deficit this year will total $1.2 trillion, more than two and a half times the size of last year’s.
- An unemployment rate that will exceed 9% early in 2010.
-Federal revenues to decline by $166 billion, or 6.6 percent, from the amount in 2008.
-Gross Federal Debt would grow from $11.5 trillion in 2009 to $15.9 trillion

Facts on record - if Obama hadn't spent a penny & just babysat all Bush/GOP Federal spending, policies & taxation laws in place, 2009 deficit would have been $1.2 trillion. Obama additionally enacted the ARRA stimulus. Finally, Obama brought 2009 in at $1.4 trillion. This included $200 billion for ARRA but also an extra $245 billion for TARP & a $450 billion drop in fed revenues over 2008 contributed. Had fed revenues stayed constant, Obama would have brought the projected deficit below $1 trillion.

Bush may even have contributed to the fed revenue drop. As WaPo covered, on 9/30/08, Bush gave Wall St banks a final $140 billion secret tax break - pretty irresponsible of Bush/Paulsen since they knew then they were already dumping a $1.2 trillion spending deficit on Obama.

Credit where it's due...and spending where it's due!

Posted by: TruthFairy | July 16, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

Ah, yes, credit where it's due...

The FY 2009 budget was written by a Democrat congress, as was the FY 2008 budget!

Posted by: Ptolemies | July 17, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

Ezra is really earning his money.

Posted by: Roark_ | July 17, 2010 5:11 AM | Report abuse

rwclayton- Brings up a good point, since the fit line is so strong it would make sense to do a bit of research on what the change in real disposable income has been over the last twelve months. Also, to look at the consensus estimate over the next two quarters.

BTW, what is the R squared and slope on that fit line? You should always include that when presenting a fit trend line. It gives readers another bit of information to evaluate the trend's strength and meaningfulness.

Posted by: sfmandrew | July 17, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

Corollary to Ezra's post: A lot of Democrats are out the door no matter WHAT they vote for, so they might as well use their time in office to pass things that they believe are good for the country, instead of just crying in fear as they are slowly nudged off the cliff. Because if they don't, why did they run for office in the first place?

It infuriates me when you see articles like the one on the front of the WaPo earlier this week where some endangered Democrats in Congress are crying that Obama (that mean man!) is making them take tough votes. Not that they disagree with the policies that they are voting for -- just that it's tough politically and they'd rather sit around and rename post offices because that's less controversial. Stop crying and do your job, losers.

Posted by: vvf2 | July 17, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Man oh man, you are a huge fan of this very structural, unbending theroy of elections! I do not disagree that this stuff is important but I absolutely think that the Republicans' political organization is a huge factor in their possible success in the elections this year. The Democrats did a poor job of taking control of the political discourse during the past year or so when they had the opportunity to do so.

Posted by: phillycomment | July 17, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

"You can look at this and ask why Democrats passed all this legislation that made them unpopular. "

Maybe they believed folks like Ezra who assured them that Americans would loooooove Obamacare once they just gave it a chance.

"And having a lot more seats than the other party means 1) voters blame you for the condition of the country, and 2) you have a lot of seats to lose. What the bad economy and the huge majority giveth, the bad economy and the huge majority taketh away. Om. "

Especially when you flush hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars down the toilet and have nothing to show for it. Om.

Posted by: bgmma50 | July 18, 2010 10:03 PM | Report abuse

While they're on a roll, the Democrats really ought to pass Cap and Trade and Immigration Reform. It might be a hundred years before they get another majority in either house of Congress and my goldfish could whip Obama in 2012. Om

Posted by: bgmma50 | July 18, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

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