What if 2010 is Like 1982?

I want to loop back and write a little bit more about something I touched on earlier this week: That if the 2010 midterms look like the 1982 midterms -- which isn't inconceivable considering that Barack Obama's approval rating today looks a lot like Ronald Reagan's did at the same point in the 1982 cycle -- it wouldn't be terrible news for the Democrats.

Chuck Todd, among others, has written that close Senate elections in a given year don't tend to split evenly between the two parties, but rather that one party manages to win virtually all the close races. "Check out the competitive races from the last five cycles," Todd writes. "It's a remarkable pattern."

Todd is largely right -- close Senate elections do tend to break in one party's favor. In 2008, Democrats won seven of the eight contests decided by fewer than 10 percentage points; in 2006, they won five of seven; in 2000, they won seven of 10; and in 2004, Republicans won seven of eight such races. (The 2002 elections, when the Republicans won six of ten single-digit elections, is somewhat of an exception to this general rule).

But it's worth looking back to the 1982 midterm elections to bear out an exceedingly important point that is overlooked when reciting the general rule that close Senate elections tend to break in a particular party's favor: The party winning the close elections isn't necessarily the one you might expect.

The 1982 midterm elections saw a whopping 11 Senate elections decided by fewer than 10 percentage points. Considering that Ronald Reagan's approval rating lagged at 43 percent and that the economy, while improving, was still in the doldrums, one might have expected most of these races to have broken in favor of the opposition Democrats. Indeed, in House elections that year, the Democrats were able to capitalize, picking up a net 26 seats.

Yet come election day, the races didn't break overwhelmingly in the Democrats' favor. In fact, the opposite occurred, with Reagan's Republicans winning nine of 11 single-digit Senate elections. Take a look:

Republican WinDemocratic Win
California: Pete Wilson 51.5/Jerry Brown 44.8New Jersey: Frank Lautenberg 50.9/Millicent Fenwich 47.8
Connecticut: Lowell Weicker 50.4/Toby Moffett 46.1New Mexico: Jeff Bingaman 53.8/Harrison Schmitt 46.2
Indiana: Richard Lugar 53.8/Floyd Fithian 45.6
Minnesota: Dave Durenberger 52.6/Mark Dayton 46.6
Missouri: John Danforth 50.8/Harriet Woods 49.1
Nevada: Chic Hecht 50.1/Howard Cannon 47.7
Rhode Island: John Chafee 51.2/Julius Michaelson 48.8
Vermont: Robert Stafford 50.3/James Guest 47.2
Virginia: Paul trible 51.2/Richard Joseph Davis 48.8

Going into November 1982, there was little reason to believe that the close races would swing for the GOP. The Democrats had strong candidates in most of these states -- a Governor, Jerry Brown; an elected state Attorney General, Julius Michaelson; an elected Lieutenant Governor, Richard Joseph Davis; an elected Secretary of State, James Guest; and multiple-term Congressmen Toby Moffett and Floyd Fithian. Reagan's numbers, as noted above, were in the tank, and the economy was still weak.

But the races mostly swung away from the opposition Democrats. After all the dust settled, the Senate remained firmly in control of the Republicans.

So close Senate races do tend to trend towards one party in a particular cycle, though not every year (see: 2002). When they do, it's not always to the party you might expect. Sometimes this trend can actually help the party in power, even when that party is headed by a President with an approval rating in the low-40s at a time when the economy is still weaker than expected.

Obama 2010 Approval Looks Like Reagan's in 1982

From Gallup:

Surmises Gallup: "Still, Obama's initial approval rating in his second year as president is among the lowest for elected presidents since Dwight Eisenhower. Only Ronald Reagan -- who, like Obama, took office during challenging economic times -- began his second year in office with a lower approval score (49%). However, Obama's disapproval rating is slightly higher than Reagan's was (44% vs. 40%)."

How bad would Ronald Reagan-like electoral results be for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party? In the 1982 midterm elections, which landed at the same point in the Reagan presidency as the 2010 midterms will land in Barack Obama's, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House but had no net loss in the Senate -- a bad, but not terrible showing. Should 2010 be for the President Obama and the Democrats anything like 1982 was for President Reagan and the Republicans, the Democrats would hold on to both the House and Senate with still fairly robust majorities (though narrower than they had before).

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