The crystal ball stays hidden
RALEIGH — If you are absolutely sure what is going to happen in next year’s midterm elections, my advice is to keep it confidential, tell just a few key folks, let them be awestruck by your prescience on Election Day 2014, and then start a political-intelligence firm. You’ll make a killing.
The rest of us are just going to have to settle for hypothetical scenarios and educated guesses, no doubt colored by wishful thinking.
While there are some patterns in midterm elections, they are hardly ironclad rules for confident prediction. For example, optimistic Republicans in North Carolina point out that the political party of a reelected presidential usually takes it on the chin during his second midterm, a phenomenon called the “six-year itch.” And optimistic Democrats in North Carolina point to Gov. Pat McCrory’s sliding approval rating and Democrats’ edge on generic ballot questions in recent polls.
These are important pieces of information, admittedly. But they don’t constitute a firm basis for forecasting what will happen 14 months from now. Take the phenomenon of the six-year-itch. Sure, the president’s party tends to fare poorly after his reelection. Democrats certainly made massive gains in 2006, taking back both houses of Congress. But the results in other cycles weren’t so clear. In 1998, Democrats gained rather than lost congressional seats in the aftermath of President Clinton’s impeachment trial, while North Carolina Republicans gained a congressional seat and two Supreme Court seats but lost the state house. And in 1986, while Democrats took the U.S. Senate, Republicans made historic national gains in state elections by winning eight governorships and a host of other state and local offices. The number of Republican county commissioners in North Carolina, for instance, went from 100 to 141 that year.
As for off-year polling, I would caution both sides not to get too carried away with its predictive power. In early November 2009, President Obama enjoyed a 53 percent approval rating and Democrats had a five-point edge in the generic ballot for Congress. The genetic ballot for North Carolina legislature was essentially a tie. A year later, Republicans won 63 more seats in the U.S. House, six seats in the U.S. Senate, and nearly 700 more seats in state legislatures, including both chambers in North Carolina.
At the moment, President Obama’s average job approval is 44 percent. So is Gov. McCrory’s, by the way. Democrats enjoy a two-point edge in the nationwide generic ballot for Congress and a larger advantage in the statewide generic ballot for North Carolina legislature. Sen. Kay Hagan leads all potential Republican challengers despite having only a 42 percent approval rating.
Based on these figures and past precedent, it is entirely conceivable that Democrats will minimize the effects of the six-year-itch, at least in North Carolina, and win back some legislative seats they lost in 2010 and 2012. But it is also entirely conceivable that President Obama’s sagging fortunes will produce a more typical pro-GOP trend in 2014, a trend that North Carolina Republicans will capitalize on in the Hagan race, the remaining competitive U.S. House race (Democrat Mike McIntyre’s 7th District), and efforts to defend their majorities of legislative seats and county commissions.
Which scenario is more likely? Democratic advantages in North Carolina include an angry, energized electoral base and favorable media coverage. Republican advantages in North Carolina include a unified party organization, better-funded candidates, and favorable districts. However, perhaps state political developments won’t be decisive. North Carolina insiders may be fascinated with gubernatorial vetoes and legislative debates, but most North Carolinians aren’t paying close attention to them. Events in Washington, the Middle East, and elsewhere may well have far more lasting significance for the outcome of the 2014 midterms.
I don’t mind sticking my neck out by making political predictions. During election season, I typically issue a full spread of predictions in writing, speaking, or media appearances. My track record isn’t bad. So I think I’ll protect it — by waiting until this time next year to get out my crystal ball.