Why Democrats may have to wait a long time when losing control of Washington


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Usually it is the party out of power that worries that it will ever win again. This time it is the party that controls the government that is staring into the political wilderness.

The Democrats now have a Washington trifecta – command of the White House and both houses of Congress. If the results of last week’s election in Virginia and elsewhere are any indication, they may not maintain them after next November’s midterm elections. And it can be a decade or more before they gain a trifecta again.

The unusual structure of the American government, combined with the electorate’s knee-jerk instinct to control the party in power, makes it difficult for any party to hold both the White House and Congress long.

Since World War II, political parties have waited an average of 14 years to regain full control of the government after losing it. Only one president – Harry Truman – lost Congress and later retook it. In all other cases, the President’s party won back a trifecta only after losing the White House.

It would be foolish to predict the election results for the next decade. Still, today’s Democrats will find it difficult to defy this long history. Not only do the Democrats have particularly narrow majorities, they also face a number of structural disadvantages in the House of Representatives and Senate that make it difficult to translate popular majority votes into government majorities.

The specter of a divided government is bitter for the Democrats.

The party has won national referendums in seven of the last eight presidential elections, but is still struggling to garner enough power to push its agenda through. That has raised the stakes in the ongoing negotiations on the Democrats’ major spending package, which increasingly looks like a last chance for progressives to advance an ambitious agenda.

And it has helped fuel a bitter internal democratic debate about the party’s message and strategy that would normally follow an election defeat, with moderates and progressives arguing over whether the party’s highly educated activist base needs to take a back seat in order for the party to take a back seat can hold on to its majority. The Republican strong showing in Virginia and New Jersey last week sparked yet another round of allegations.

But with such a long history of the presidential party struggling to stay in power, one wonders if any policy, tactic, or message could help Democrats escape from divided government.

The political wind seems to be blowing against the presidential party as soon as a new party takes over the White House. For decades, political scientists have observed a so-called thermostatic backlash in public opinion, in which voters instinctively lower the temperature when the government runs too hot in favor of a party. The pattern goes all the way back to survey research and helps explain why Barack Obama’s election resulted in the Tea Party, or how the election of Donald Trump resulted in record support for immigration.

At the ballot box, the president’s party sees itself additionally burdened. A bunch of voters prefer a standstill and a divided government and vote for a check-and-balance against the president. And the party in power tends to enjoy a turnout advantage, whether because the president’s opponents are determined to halt his agenda or because the president’s supporters are complacent.

What you should know about the 2021 election in Virginia

While Democrats can still hope not to lose control of Congress in 2022, Mr Biden’s declining approval ratings make it increasingly unlikely that they will. Historically, only presidents with strong approval ratings have managed to bypass the midterm curse. And since the Democrats hold only the scantiest majorities in the House and Senate, any losses would be enough to break the triad.

If the Democrats get another Trifecta, 2024 seems like their best chance. The president’s party usually recovers when the president seeks re-election, perhaps because the presidential election offers a clear choice between two sides, rather than just a referendum on the party in power. And in the House of Representatives, a recovery of the Democrats in 2024 is very easy to imagine, if anything but certain.

Findings from the 2021 elections

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The democratic panic is increasing. Less than a year after taking power in Washington, the party faces a bleak immediate future as it struggles to motivate voters and continues to lose intelligence wars to Republicans.

However, the Senate may be a different, and ultimately grim, story for the Democrats.

In the short term, the president’s party is relatively shielded from medium-term losses in the Senate, as only a third of the seats are available. And the president’s party usually doesn’t have to defend much in its first half, as it often lost many of the contested seats six years earlier – when the party out of power did well on its way to its final victory in the White House. The same thing isolates some Democratic losses in 2022.

But if 2024 is an opportunity for democratic recovery in the House of Representatives, it may not be such an opportunity in the Senate. There will be no way for the Democrats to recapture Senate seats that they could lose in 2022. And they must defend the seats they won in their 2018 half-time loss six years earlier, including some in otherwise reliable Republican states like West Virginia, Ohio and Montana. To hold or win the Senate – and a trifecta – they might need all of those seats.

Democratic influence over the Senate depends on keeping republican states because the Democrats in the Chamber are at a significant disadvantage. The party tends to excel in a relatively small number of populous states, but each state receives two senators, regardless of population.

The extent of the democratic disadvantage in the Senate can be overstated: Mr. Biden has won 25 states, and the Democrats control the chamber today with a narrow majority of the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

But the democratic majority is weak and there are few ways to consolidate it: there are only 27 states where Mr Biden was within five points of victory in 2020. And since there are only 19 states where Mr Biden has won more than he has nationwide, Republicans could easily flip many seats if they benefit from a favorable political environment.

Given the huge structural advantages of Republicans in the Chamber, some Democrats fear they could be reduced to just 43 Senate seats by the end of the 2024 elections. Should Mr Biden win re-election, Republicans could claim even more seats in 2026. Going back to a democratic trifecta would be daunting.

Even if the Democrats cap their Senate losses next year, there would still be a long way to go back to controlling the Chamber. You might struggle to win them back until there is a new Republican president, when the benefits of having the party out of power come back to their advantage.

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