Democrats face disaster in upcoming midterm election

Published 8:43 am Saturday, September 11, 2010

by Rhodes Cook

Virtually every leading political indicator points to a midterm election this November that could range anywhere from difficult to disastrous for Democrats.

The nation’s high unemployment rate, the declining approval ratings for President Barack Obama, and the Democrats’ lingering deficit in the generic congressional ballot all paint a dark picture for the ruling party.

And now, it appears, the Republicans have another indicator going in their favor — the “battle of the primary ballots.” Two years ago, the Democrats had a big edge in presidential primary turnout, a reflection of the “enthusiasm gap” that benefited them from the start of the year to the end. This time, however, it is the Republicans who have the most energy. This is evident not only in polling data but also in the GOP’s lead of more than 3 million votes over the Democrats when comparing the number of ballots cast in each party’s primaries through the end of August.

But this year, the primary ballot measurement could be a two-edged sword. The Republican advantage was built in many states on the excitement generated by newly activated legions of populist conservatives against choices favored by the Republican leadership. That infighting should not deter the GOP this fall in the anti-Democratic environment of 2010, but it could pose a critical problem for the party beyond November as it seeks to refurbish its “brand” for 2012.

One thing for certain, this year is a far cry from 2008. Then, the historic nominating contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton brought nearly 37 million voters into the Democratic presidential primaries, compared to less than 21 million on the Republican side. Of the 40 states that held presidential primaries in 2008, more votes were cast on the Democratic side in 33 of them.

This year, the numbers have basically reversed. Almost 16.6 million votes have been cast in Republican primaries thus far, compared to less than 13.4 million in Democratic contests — using the statewide race (governor, Senate or House at-large) in each state that drew the most votes and had a tally on both the Democratic and Republican sides. Of the 36 states where such a count has been available in 2010, more ballots were cast in the Republican primary in 23 of them.

The states where more voters picked a GOP primary ballot comprise an eclectic group. It includes not only traditionally Republican states in the South and the nation’s rural heartland, but also some major battleground states such as Florida in the South, Michigan and Missouri in the Midwest, and Colorado and Nevada in the West.

Even in parts of “blue” America, the Republicans have finished on top this year in the battle of the primary ballots. One such case is Washington, where candidates of all parties ran together in August on a “jungle” ballot. There, in the race for the U.S. Senate, more votes were cast for Republican candidates than their Democratic counterparts — a group that included the incumbent, Patty Murray.

RHODES COOK is a senior columnist for Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a non-partisan political analysis website created by Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. His e-mail address is