The Lessons of 1982

Why Democrats need not fear the ghosts of 1994.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

It’s a foregone conclusion that the Democrats will lose seats in November. It’s not just that the luck of 2006 and 2008—when they gained 30 and 23 seats, respectively—has run out. Conditions have changed. Sure, Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House. But President Obama’s approval rating is hovering at an anemic 45 percent. The economy isn’t seeing the kind of recovery a party in power wants before an election. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin is doing her best to stir up angry voters who might otherwise stay home during an off-year contest.

So speculation is running rampant, particularly in the media and especially among Republicans (and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs), that 2010 could be a replay of the Democrats’ lowest political moment in the last half-century: the 1994 midterms, when Republicans seized 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, taking control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. But the similarities between 2010 and 1994 are superficial. The more relevant election—the one that gives a better gauge of the magnitude of losses the Democrats may see—is the 1982 midterms. Although some political scientists were predicting that the Democrats would gain as many as 50 seats, on Election Day they took only 26 seats from the Republicans.

What happened? And could their disappointment of 28 years ago offer reasons for Democrats to hope this year? After all, they’re in the same position now—stronger, actually, since they control both houses of Congress—as the Republicans were in 1982. A quick look at three of the most important factors in any midterm election show why 2010 may be for Democrats what 1982 was for Republicans: not great, certainly, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.

The economy. In many respects, today’s economic conditions are identical to those in 1982. The yearly change in real disposable income per capita is a key factor in predicting midterm outcomes: When their wallets are fuller, people are more likely to send their representatives back to Washington. And right now this number is almost the same as it was at this point in 1982. For the third quarter of 2010, Moody’s Economy.com is predicting a 0.4 percent increase in real disposable income per capita from last year—a fairly stagnant number that does not show much economic growth for the average citizen. In the third quarter of 1982, the change in real disposable income per capita was 0.5 percent—also fairly flat. The unemployment rate is also eerily familiar; it’s now pushing 10 percent, while in 1982 it was 9.7 percent. In 1994, meanwhile, the economy was in better shape than it is now or was in 1982, with a 6.1 percent unemployment rate and 2.3 percent increase in personal disposable income from the third quarter of 1993.

Campaign spending. In 1982, one of the ways Republicans were able to fend off the Democratic attack was by achieving parity on campaign spending for challengers—both parties spent an average of $141,000. (You can find these data on JSTOR; login required.)  It’s true that, as a group, Democratic challengers did better than Republican challengers (attributed to the fact that they often ran in Democratic-leaning districts). But if Republicans had skimped on those races, Democrats probably would have come closer to their predicted 40- to 50-seat pickup. Meanwhile, in 1994, Republican challengers outspent Democratic challengers by an average of $244,042 to $152,659 and by a margin of $40,000 on open seats (data again from JSTOR).

This year, although the National Republican Congressional Committee outspent the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in May, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee outspent their Republican counterparts. The DNC and DCCC also had more cash on hand at the end of the month, which will help them later in the election. Without outspending the Democrats, it is unlikely the Republicans will be able to achieve all the pickups they are hoping for.

Messaging. Perhaps the most compelling reason why 2010 won’t be another 1994 is the current state of the Republican Party.With the economy the major focus of this election—as it was in 1982—the sitting president has much more power to present a unified voice on behalf of the party. This is something that both Reagan did and Obama has done well.

The conventional wisdom holds that a bad economy casts a dark cloud over the party in power, but 1982 shows the cloud’s silver lining. The depths of the economic problems that year gave the president nearly unlimited open-mic time to talk to the American people—and present a coherent strategy on behalf of his party. By November 1982, Reagan had given six speeches from the Oval Office about the economy, explaining to Americans how he and Republicans were trying to solve the problem. Obama has given no Oval Office speeches on the economy, but it has been the topic of 106 speeches and appearances—and the subject of his recent campaign trail rhetoric. And, just as with Reagan, many Americans do not place the blame for the economic problems with Obama. Even with a job approval rating in the mid-40s and stagnant personal disposable income, Reagan and the Republicans avoided a walloping, and Obama might too.

In 1994, in contrast, Clinton lost control of the national conversation. Congress did pass a huge tax-cutting and -raising bill in Clinton’s first year. But despite his unofficial campaign slogan (“It’s the economy, stupid”), Clinton spent a lot of time in the first two years of his term on controversial projects unrelated to the economy (a crime bill, a failed health care bill, a failed attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military). This opened avenues of failure for the Republicans to exploit. Led by Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America, they blanketed the country with their message. Not only was Gingrich successful in promoting a unified message, particularly among challengers; he also helped his party reach voters in new ways, with previously underused media like talk radio. That kind of message mastery was essential to the Republicans’ capture of 52 House seats.

This year, the Republican Party is deeply divided in its upper echelons of leadership—and people like RNC Chairman Michael Steele certainly aren’t helping the party define or stay on message. Additionally, the Republicans (far more than the Democrats) have had to contend with the distractions of the Tea Partiers, whose candidates have the potential to steal away the conservative voters on which the Republicans rely so heavily. A recent Gallup poll highlighted the steep overlap between the Tea Partiers and the Republican base. Republicans this year have to fend off charges from the right and the left instead of just being able to focus on the attack.

As Robert Gibbs says, it’s certainly possible that the Democrats will lose the House this year, like they did in 1994. But from an economic standpoint, this year more closely resembles 1982. And the president—a Democrat now, a Republican then—seems similarly disciplined. All the party in power has to do is spend some money and hope that this year turns out to be less bad than everyone predicts.

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