October 28, 2010
Dr. Dan Ponder, associate professor of political science at Drury, authored an opinion-editorial that appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This is his second op-ed to appear in the Post-Dispatch in the last three months.
Here is a link to Ponder’s piece: “Handicapping the election — old-school style”
Here is the full text of Ponder’s article:
Democrats are in big trouble this November, but not entirely because midterm elections inevitably are a referendum on the president’s record. Republicans, especially in Missouri, will fare well in the midterm elections for other reasons.
With only three exceptions since 1862, the presidential party has lost House seats in the midterm elections. Even if we ignore Grover Cleveland’s massive 116-seat loss in 1894, the average loss is more than 30 seats in the House. The Senate is a bit easier for the presidential party, but even there the average loss is three seats.
It’s unclear why this happens. But we do know that a more likely cause for the loss than serving as a referendum on the president is the fact that when a party picks up a lot of seats in the last election cycle or two, they are likely to lose a lot of those seats in the post-presidential victory midterm elections.
The Democrats won 52 new seats in the last two cycles, many of them in conservative districts. These seats are hard to defend in a “normal” year.
It is probable that Americans will be guided by national conditions when they vote next Tuesday. Presidents with approval ratings below 50 percent in the month before the midterm averaged a 38-seat loss, just one shy of the number the Republicans need to make John Boehner of Ohio the Speaker of the House. Obama’s approval rating is 47 percent.
Here in Missouri, however, the referendum hypothesis does not extend to Missouri’s race for the U.S. Senate between U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat. Rather, this race turns on textbook geography, math and logic.
Greene County, the third most populous voting region in the state, is Blunt’s stomping ground and is heavily Republican. Most Democrats lose in Greene County.
Blunt will draw a large voter turnout in Greene County, and simple math tells us that since the county is conservative, Democrats can win statewide only if they minimize the margin by which they lose in Greene. Sen. Claire McCaskill ran for governor in 2004 and lost. She ran for senator in 2006 and won. Both times the outcome was driven by whether she minimized her losses in Greene County.
So the Democratic strategy is to run up the score in strongholds in St. Louis city, St. Louis County and Kansas City, and minimize their losses in Greene, giving them a fighting chance. But when a Blunt is on the ballot, that’s difficult to do.
The referendum hypothesis in Missouri also defies logic. Barack Obama lost Missouri to John McCain in 2008. Moreover, retiring Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, a Republican, has held that seat since 1987. Polls predict that a Carnahan victory is increasingly unlikely, so if she were to win, that really would be an interesting story.
Missourians are faced with the prospect of sending Blunt, a Missouri political mainstay and part of the House Republican leadership for many years, or Robin Carnahan, member of a Missouri family political dynasty, to Washington, D.C.
Additionally, if Blunt wins, Missouri will continue to be one of about a quarter of all states that have ‘split delegations,” meaning they send one Democrat and one Republican to the Senate. That number is even higher if you count Vermont and Connecticut, each of which has elected an independent.
There are other places where the presidential referendum or “test” theories might play out more plausibly, such as West Virginia, Illinois, California or Wisconsin. Missouri’s race, important and coveted by both parties, just is not as interesting this year as others around the country.
Daniel Ponder is associate professor of political science at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., and author of “Good Advice: Information and Policy Making in the White House.”
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