High Expectations Setting Democrats Up for Fall?

Adam Nagourney argues that expectations are so high for the Democrats that anything short of overwhelming victory will look like failure.

In most midterm elections, an out-of-power party picking up, say, 14 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate could call it a pretty good night. But for Democrats in 2006, that showing would mean coming up one seat shy of taking control of both the Senate and the House. And it would probably be branded a loss — in the case of the House, a big one.

For a combination of reasons — increasingly bullish prognostications by independent handicappers, galloping optimism by Democratic leaders and bloggers, and polls that promise a Democratic blowout — expectations for the party have soared into the stratosphere. Democrats are widely expected to take the House, and by a significant margin, and perhaps the Senate as well, while capturing a majority of governorships and legislatures.

These expectations may well be overheated. Polls over the weekend suggested that the contest was tightening, and some prognosticators on Monday were scaling back their predictions, if ever so slightly. (Charlie Cook, the analyst who is one of Washington’s chief setters of expectations, said in an e-mail message on Monday that he was dropping the words “possibly more” from his House prediction of “20-35, possibly more.”)

Some Democrats worry that those forecasts, accurate or not, may be setting the stage for a demoralizing election night, and one with lasting ramifications, sapping the party’s spirit and energy heading into the 2008 presidential election cycle. “Two years ago, winning 14 seats in the House would have been a pipe dream,” said Matt Bennett, a founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic organization. Now, Mr. Bennett said, failure to win the House, even by one seat, would send Democrats diving under their beds (not to mention what it might do to all the pundits). “It would be crushing,” he said. “It would be extremely difficult.” Mr. Cook put it more succinctly. “I think you’d see a Jim Jones situation — it would be a mass suicide,” he said.

Regular OTB commenter Anderson has made this point many times in recent weeks. It has merit.

There’s no denying that expectations are very high for the Democrats. While winning fifteen seats in the House and six in the Senate in the sixth year of a presidential administration is historically modest, it would go against recent tides. There has been only one election in the past quarter century where anything approaching those changes happened, the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994.

Still, it is not at all unreasonable to expect the Democrats to take the House under present circumstances. Not only have the polls pointed in that direction for months but the stars are well aligned for that to take place. From an unpopular war to political corruption to bad campaigns to underage gay hooker sex on meth, the Republicans have done it. If an election has ever been handed to a party on a silver platter, this is it.

By the same token, winning back the Senate is certainly possible but hardly expected. If the Democrats win five seats and make it an effective 50-50 split, with Dick Cheney breaking the tie, it would be a big deal.

UPDATE: Robert Novak nails it: “[S]hould it occur, Democratic victory will come in spite of the total incompetence of Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean” and “If you can’t lose an election after all that has happened in the last two years, it may not be possible to lose.” Indeed.

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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. Rodney Dill says:

    anything short of overwhelming victory will look like failure.

    ‘cept they’ve already laid the groundwork for claiming voter fraud.

  2. Pug says:

    Unless there is a decisive, knock-out win either way (Dems take both houses of Congress, or neither) both sides will spin it their way. Krauthammer started it yesterday with his piece claiming that Democratic gains would be “average”. You know, no big deal.

    Same old stuff. It’s politics. But the spin doesn’t really matter that much. Control of Congress does.

  3. Anderson says:

    I just *knew* that if I repeated myself enough, Adam Nagourney would get the hint!

    JJ is quite right that the Dems should take the House; the inflated expectation, to me, is a 50-seat pickup (yes, there are those actually predicting this). And the Senate would have to be a “perfect storm,” with all the coins landing heads-up.

    Novak’s prediction of +19 House, +2 Senate could well come true, and the Dems’ picking up the House would be overshadowed by their poor Senate showing. At least, until the hearings start …

  4. Billy says:

    Three months ago the House seemed impervious to a Democratic takeover, yet now it is acknowledged to be all but inevitable. The point is, expectations mean nothing. Results are the only thing that matter.

    I think Anderson is right – if the Senate stays GOP (which appears likely), it will be the story of the day. But the real ramifications of a House takeover will be felt in January, and make no mistake about it, wresting total control of Washington from Republican hands is a huge victory for the Democrats after 2002 and 2004.

  5. legion says:

    So now Novakula is flailing at Howard Dean? I think he’s running on the same ticket as Kerry this fall…

    Of course, if the GOP doesn’t lose every single contested seat today, it’ll be in spite of Liddy Dole’s incompetence, but I don’t see too many Repubs talking about that…

  6. anjin-san says:

    I notice that no examples of Dean’s “Incompetence” are cited. I guess that strong fund raising and being poised for a big win are signs of doing a crappy job…

  7. cian says:

    With Iraq collapsing into civil war and millions of Iraqi civilians facing the horror of out and out sectarian slaughter; with the Taliban on the rise in Afghanistan five years after what can only be described as an overwhelming victory; with torture now a part of the American way and incompetence rewarded with medals and defended by once respected commentators, 15 in the house will do me fine so long as the dems have the courage to conduct real oversight and allow the generals to finally say what it is they need.

    That’s all the victory any sane American should want.

  8. Tano says:

    No serious person would take Novak’s comments at face value of course. It really isnt surpising that he would trash Dean. The notion of the Democrats taking the attitude that all districts in all 50 states should be on the table is something the Republicans obviously would like to see discredited. Perhaps Novak could be a bit more specific – exactly how many seats should Dems concede to Republicans without a fight?

    If the Dems win big, it will obviously be a huge confirmation of the Dean strategy. If Dems had stuck with the convential wisdom, they may have won big in the dozen or so seats that the “experts” figured were in play last year. The fact that Dean helped to build a party appartus in places where Dems were not given any chance, meant that the structures and candidates were in place to take advantage of today’s climate.

  9. Michael says:

    Tano is right, the fact that GOP incumbents are likely to lose it the fault of the GOP culture, but the fact that so many of those seats were in play in the first place should be credited to Dean’s 50 state policy. I’d rather win 14 seats and be below expectations, than win 12 seats and be above expectations.

    Sometimes setting the goal too high is still a good thing. As Pug said, post-election spin won’t matter in January.

  10. Legion,

    I have been talking a lot about Liddy not bringing the A-team for the republicans.

    Imagine we had these names on the ballot.

    Nebraska: Tom Osborne
    Florida: Jeb Bush
    New York: Rudy
    Washington: Dino Rossi
    Wisconsin: Tommy Thompson
    California: Ahhhhnold
    West Virginia: Ireland or Capito
    North Dakota: Jim Hoeven
    Massachusetts: Mitt Romney

    Now I grant you that not all would have won. But even where they weren’t likely to lose, they would have been putting seats in play that the democrats would have had to honor the threat. Osborne, Rossi, Thompson, Bush and Hoeven would likely have won (meaning we start the calculations with the republicans up five seats). I suspect that Romney, Schwarzeneger and anyone who wasn’t a former klansman running in west Virginia would not have won. Rudy vs Clinton would have been a toss up.

    There are some good challengers for the GOP (e.g. Steele). But the GOP definitely didn’t have its varsity on the field.

    The only democrat that I can see the dems would have wanted as a substitute would have been Warner in VA. Maybe someone in NJ, but it seems a bit difficult for the democrats to find non-corrupt candidate in NJ.

    So the democrats in my opinion pretty much had their varsity on the field.

    I still think they are going to fall short. I even think the GOP is going to pull out a house victory, though I’m not sure by how much. But if you look at the most likely seats to be lost, the republicans would see their ACU rating rise (i.e. more conservative) and the democrats are likely to see their effective ACU rating also rise (as the replacements are likely to not vote as liberal as the rest of the democrats). A small minority by either side (say less than 5 seats) will make things interesting in keeping the party unity going. If the dems take the majority, they will have several members running in 2008 for re-election in districts that have been supporting the GOP at the presidential level. If no immediate miracles are forthcoming from a democratic controlled house, expect a fine crop of challengers to run in 2008.

    As far as poaching the other side to get a “bipartisan” speaker, there are only 6 democrats with ACU ratings above 50% (Cuellar-TX 52%, McIntyre-NC 53%, Melancon-LA 61%, Lincoln-TN 62%, Boren-OK 64% and Gene-MS 68%) and 4 republicans less than 50% (Johnson-CT 47%, Shays-CT 47%, Leach-IA 43% and Boehlert-NY 40% who is retired). Johnson and shays are on most of the lists as one of the seats that could change.

    Imagine a one seat majority either way. The democrats would likely have only Leach to flip. The republicans are likely to have 6 potential to flip. Interesting times.

    We shall see what we shall see.