Since late 2009, the narrative, among columnists at least, that 2010 will more closely remember 1982 than 1994, has been pervasive. This feels like wishful thinking.
The story goes like this: Reagan’s popularity nearly mirrors Obama’s in his first 18 months. Reagan’s GOP lost 26 seats in the House; Democrats and pundits believe this year will be similar.
The unspoken hope within that sentiment is that the economy will recover, if not right before than closely after the midterms, vindicating the president’s economic policies. If Obama’s popularity continues to follow a path similar to Reagan’s, it will be much higher by 2012; Reagan’s 1984 reelection was a 49 state victory.
The problem with this view is not that the President’s popularity mirrors Reagan’s in 1982, that observation is largely true. However, generic congressional vote is wildly different. In 1982, Gallup showed that Democrats enjoyed a 17 to 19 point lead over Republicans. We know that Democrats tend to ride hot in the generic congressional vote (somewhere between D+2 and D+4), but that significant lead only yielded 26 seats. Today, Quinnipiac gives Republicans a 5-point lead over Democrats.
What is worse, the generic advantage flipped from 42 percent to 34 supporting Democrats to 43 to 34 supporting Republicans in one year. That is as clear a trend as it gets. Where Democrats can take solace is in the fact that while most people surveyed have a rock bottom opinion of congress in general, they tend to like their congressional representative. That story was the big news in New Jersey this week.
If Democrats can successfully localize this election, as they have been, and avoid drawing flawed comparisons to history in order to manage the expectations of their supporters, which they have not been, they may be able to mitigate the estimated losses coming in November. If Democrats remain consumed with salvaging what remains of the progressive agenda yet to be fulfilled and continue to nationalize this election, they will likely face trouble that defies historical comparison (’82, ’94, or otherwise).
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org