For more than two decades, three leading political scientists have assessed the lay of the electoral landscape in a series of books widely used in college classrooms. Paul Abramson, John Aldrich and David Rohde since the 1980s have regularly authored books providing careful analysis of election returns and survey data. Their latest volume, completed late last year, is "Change and Continuity in the 2008 Elections" (Congressional Quarterly Press, 2010).
In their final chapter, they survey the prospects for Obama and the Democrats. Their points are worth examining for insight into America's electoral future.
The authors note that Democrats have certain long-term advantages in electoral competition. Certain demographic trends augur well for them. The rising number of Latinos, who are majority Democratic voters, and the coming decline in the white percentage of the population may well yield more Democratic voters. In recent elections, a majority of professionals have voted Democratic, and they may have become a reliable part of the Democratic coalition.
Those trends are probable, but it remains possible that as Latinos gain in income and wealth, they may vote more Republican than they do at present. Professionals may also prove to be volatile voters, moving between the parties as economic conditions alter.
Abramson, Aldrich and Rohde note that in 2008, much voting for Democrats was fueled by negative views of George W. Bush, and Bush will not be much of a factor in future elections. Barack Obama's policies do not earn majority support in polls, and given economic problems, Obama in the short term was likely to encounter some difficult times. One political positive for the president is the low likelihood of the emergence of a credible challenger to his renomination in 2012.
The authors, writing in late 2009, found many problems besetting the GOP. The party had "no new ideas," was divided between social and economic conservatives, was likely to suffer from demographic change and had no obviously strong candidate to run against Obama in 2012.
This summer, all of those GOP problems remain. But the sluggish economy, coupled with Obama's unpopular policies, has made those shortcomings for the moment less pressing. In 2010, just being "not Democrats" seems to help the GOP enormously.
Abramson, Aldrich and Rohde conclude their book by arguing that "American politics will be characterized by continued volatility" and that "if economic problems persist, [Obama] may face a serious challenge" in 2012. Both conclusions seem safe bets in the summer of 2010.
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Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .