Could 2010 Be Worse Than 1994 For Democrats?

The signs point to 2010 being an even worse year for Democrats than 1994.

Chris Cillizza reports (“Poll numbers in 1994, a bad year for Democrats, don’t bode well for them in 2010“) that the incumbent party is resigned to a drubbing in the fall.

Some neutral observers and senior strategists within the party have begun to believe that the national political environment is not only similar to what they saw in 1994 — when Democrats lost control of the House and Senate — but could in fact be worse by Election Day.

A quick look at the broadest atmospheric indicators designed to measure which way the national winds are blowing — the generic ballot and presidential approval — affirms the sense that the political environment looks every bit as gloomy for Democrats today as it did 16 years ago.

“President Obama’s job [approval] number is likely to be as bad or worse than [Bill] Clinton’s when November rolls around, the Democratic generic-ballot advantage of plus 12 to plus 15 in 2006 and 2008 is now completely gone, and conservatives are energized like 1994,” said Stu Rothenberg, an independent political analyst and editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a well-read campaign tip sheet.

The generic ballot — would you vote for an unnamed Democrat or an unnamed Republican? — is either similar or worse for Democrats (depending on which poll you look at) than it was in 1994.

In an August 1994 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 49 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Democrat while 42 percent said they would back the Republican. Last month, 47 percent said they would support the Republican while 46 percent chose the Democrat.

The results were strikingly similar in several other national surveys. In an August 1994 Gallup poll, 46 percent said they would vote for the Democrat and an equal 46 percent said they would support the Republican. The most recent Gallup data give Republicans an edge of 50 percent to 43 percent over Democrats. A CNN/Opinion Research poll shows that in August 1994, Republicans had a generic-ballot lead of 46 percent to 44 percent, a margin similar to the numbers in CNN data, 48 percent to 45 percent, this month.

While I’ve long expected the Republicans to do well this year, I’ve been dubious that we’d see another wave election like 1994.  Yes, the economy is in the toilet now in a way it wasn’t in 1994.   But we’re two years removed from George W. Bush, not George H.W. Bush.  And the 1994 Republicans at least had a positive agenda to offer.

Charlie Cook prophesies “a Republican net gain of between 32 and 42 seats to a gain of between 35 and 45 seats, with the odds of an outcome larger than that range greater than the odds of a lesser outcome.”  And 39 seats is all that’s needed.  Meanwhile, Larry Sabato sees the Republicans picking up 32 seats in the House and 7 in the Senate.  Neither would be enough to retake a majority.

While those represent sizable gains, indeed, recall that the Republicans picked up 54 House and 8  Senate seats in 1994.  That’s almost inconceivable this year.

FILED UNDER: 2010 Election, Environment, US Politics, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    “The signs point to 2010 being an even worse year for Democrats than 2010.”

    That bad, huh?

  2. just me says:

    I am still not convinced the GOP will win enough seats for control of either house, much less that there will be a repeat of 1994.

  3. ponce says:

    The Republicans will find a way to shoot themselves in the foot just before the election.

  4. Jay Dubbs says:

    One big difference was that in 94, most Democrats (and many Republcan) were caught unaware of what was happening. That won’t happen this time. That said 70+ days out is still alot of time for opinion to shift, especially in local races where most voters haven’t been paying very much attention yet.

  5. James Joyner says:

    That bad, huh?

    Maybe even worse!

  6. sam says:

    Heh. Well, I hope not…

  7. My guess is that GOP will pick up 45-60 seats in the House and 7-9 in the Senate — plus, I think it is possible we’ll see Nelson and Lieberman choose to caucus with GOP giving them control of both chambers.

    The issue is what happens next. We know one thing will happen for sure — endless, idiotic hearings about whatever conspiracy theory Fox gins up on a monthly basis. We also know that the GOP will propose massive new tax cuts, probably on top of efforts to make the Bush cuts permanent. But what does Obama do in that scenario? And how does it feed into 2012?

  8. Herb says:

    “My guess is that GOP will pick up 45-60 seats in the House and 7-9 in the Senate — plus, I think it is possible we’ll see Nelson and Lieberman choose to caucus with GOP giving them control of both chambers.”

    Why would either one of these guys caucus with the GOP if they don’t already?

  9. “Why would either one of these guys caucus with the GOP if they don’t already?”

    Well, no point in jumping ship to join the minority party. Much more interesting if you can flip the Senate by doing so and wrangling some sweet committee assignments out of it. Plus if their calculus is that a GOP majority is likely in 2012 regardless, it would be a sound strategic approach to guarantee their leverage over time.

    Plus, both are attention whores and would revel in the nonstop coverage such a move would provide.

  10. Tano says:

    “Charlie Cook prophesies “a Republican net gain of between 32 and 42 seats to a gain of between 35 and 45 seats,… ”

    Well thats interesting. That means, of course, between 32-45 seats. And the mid point between those two numbers is 38.5.

    As I mentioned the other day, Cook’s conclusions seem to be a bit of stretch given his own analyses. He lists 214 seats for the Dems with 40 toss-ups – so if he seriously thinks the Dems will lose control (i.e. fail to get to 218) he is seeing pretty much a clean sweep of all toss-ups. Possilbe, not probable.

    Congressional Quarterly’s analysis is not that different – though they list 219 seats already in the Dem camp (a majority right there), and 36 toss-ups.

    Stu Rotheberg has the GOP net +21 plus 16 toss-ups, most of them Dem seats.

    If you combine these and figure that the Dems are sitting right on the edge of their majority before you consider the toss-ups, and that the GOP ends up winning 2/3 to 3/4 of those toss-ups, then you end up with a net GOP pickup of 27-32 or so. I’ll go with that consensus.

    I look over the Senate races and really think that the Dems have a good shot at keeping their losses down to 2-3.

  11. Tano, the issue is methodological. Most of the political analyses are focused on district-level assessments. Which are fine, in a way, but they rely on a lot of conventional wisdom mixed in with relatively few actual polls. The alternative is to look at trendlines in the generic ballot and make some big guesses/assumptions about likely intervening events. Yes, August is silly month, so no reason to assume the election will be decided on Corboda House. But, on the other hand I think the confluence of a widening generic ballot gap combined with the strong likelihood (IMO) of worsening economic conditions suggests to me something of a perfect storm working against the Dems.

    Cook/CQ/Rotheberg are backward-looking analysis. Which is often fine, but here I think the emergent trends will swamp that district-level analysis.

    At the very least, I would propose that the odds of the GOP wildly exceeding “consensus” are much greater than the reverse. All the downside risk is on the Dem side.

  12. Rock says:

    As long as the dead can vote there is no chance the Dems will loose either house.

  13. Tano says:

    Of course the Dead can vote – even if they are on tour, there is always absentee ballots….

  14. “As long as the dead can vote there is no chance the Dems will loose either house.”

    Yeah. And don’t forget ACORN. And illegals voting.

  15. Tano says:


    The reason Charlie Cook’s bottom line prediction is a bit out of whack with his analysis is that he does just what you seem to do – extrapolate a trend, and thus predict that things will move significantly further against the Dems in the next 2 1/2 months.

    Predictions are hard though, especially about the future.

    One factor that I see as possibly playing a role, that really hasn’t been a factor so far, would be a strong, aggressive, explicit campaign led by Obama himself. We have had a relentlessly negative campaign for almost two years now by the Republicans, who have no governing responsibilities and little interest in being a responsible opposition, and thus not much to do with their time other than make political hay. I suspect that Obama will be joining the fray in the next few months and the meme-battle will even out somewhat. Obama remains the most respected and popular political figure in the country, and on an entirely different level as a communicator than any of the GOP figures out there.

    So I think there is a fair chance that the Dems can, if anything, actually claw back somewhat.

  16. D-Man says:

    Anger with with the voters was not this high in 1994.
    Fox News didn’t exist in 1994.
    Talk radio wasn’t as strong as it was in 1994. 

    That is why the republicans will gain 50-75 seats in the house and win it back.

    I do not believe that they will win the senate, but they will win eight seats back.

    If the republicans can come up with something that will give the voters something to run to instead of something to run from (i.e. the contract with America) then We will see a repeat of 94’….. 1894!!!!  (the dems lost 125 seats in the house that year)