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Why it’s tough to be a Democrat in 2010

There’s usually a bit of a reversal of fortune for the president’s party in Congress in the first midterm election…

By ryanelias , in U.S. Senate Races: The view from Canada , on March 15, 2010 Tags: , , , ,

There’s usually a bit of a reversal of fortune for the president’s party in Congress in the first midterm election after his inauguration. Sometimes there’s a big reversal.

Intuitively, this makes some sense. Given the way rhetoric tends to flow in presidential campaigns, an actual human in the role can’t help but be a bit of a letdown to the country. Presidential approval ratings thus almost always decline after inauguration.

And since successful presidential candidates have “coattails”, the ability to attract votes for down-ticket members of the same party, once the president is no longer on the ticket and a bit less popular balance of power drifts back towards the status quo.

All this, of course, assumes a district where the president is popular. Winning candidates are, by definition, pretty well-liked nationally, but the situation can be quite different locally.

This is the funny thing about national versus local candidates; we talked a bit last week about Kentucky, which was never really in play for Barack Obama, but might yet elect a local Democrat to the senate in November.

Obama isn’t popular in Kentucky. Indeed, in 2008 Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford infamously aligned himself with John McCain in his race against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the other member of Kentucky’s Senate delegation. This year, whichever Democrat runs for Bunning’s seat will probably be just as happy not to have Obama on the ticket.

But we’re getting off track. The point is, the President’s party almost always loses seats in the House in midterm elections. As it puts out far fewer candidates in any given year, the trend isn’t as strong in the Senate, but the fact remains that it would be decidedly unusual if the Democrats made gains in the Senate this year.

Not that they will, you understand. But that’s kind of the point. Both parties have 18 seats up for grabs this year, but it’s the Democrats who are going to lose out substantially, even though they’re running pretty even when it comes to generic voting preferences and have a consistent advantage in party identification.

One of the starkest comparisons to be made between American and Canadian politics is that clear statements like the above are not easy to make in Canada. The U.S.A. has, for most purposes, exactly two candidates in any contested election, and their relationship in terms of support is basically zero-sum. Except in certain unusual situations, votes for third party candidates are no more significant in the ultimate election result than spoiled ballots.

Things are not so simple in Canada. Though many Canadian races come down to two favourites, there are almost always other legitimate candidates waiting in the wings. And some races have several strong contenders. This extra complexity makes tracking where support goes and why much more difficult.