Don't Expect Another Wave Election in 2012

President Obama is in danger, but the momentum isn't overwhelming. Next year, all politics will finally be local once again.

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Although plenty of political and economic diagnostic indicators are signaling danger for President Obama, this election season still doesn't have a dominant direction. During the 2006, 2008, and 2010 cycles, the question was how many seats would the victorious party pick up, not which one the political tides would benefit most. But so far for 2012, the weather vanes are just spinning.

A new survey of 1,000 likely voters, conducted Oct. 15-18 for two liberal groups by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, confirms that. The public is pessimistic--just 15 percent agreed that "things in this country are going in the right direction." A whopping 76 percent believed that things are "pretty seriously off on the wrong track." Obama's job approval is 40 percent (53 percent disapproval)--almost identical to his 41 percent in the Oct. 10-16 Gallup Poll, his September average, and his just-completed 11th quarter. In the latest poll, 21 percent strongly approved of Obama's job performance; 42 percent strongly disapproved; 19 percent somewhat approved; and 11 percent somewhat disapproved. The disapproval is double the intensity of the approval.

Even so, just 27 percent approved of the way "Republicans in Congress are handling their job in charge of the House of Representatives" and 65 percent disapproved. Just 9 percent strongly approved compared to 48 percent that strongly disapproved. And 18 percent somewhat approved, with 17 percent somewhat disapproving. The intensity of disapproval is almost triple the approval.

Intensity aside, the "warmth thermometer" shows something more nuanced. Warmth thermometers rate favorability on a scale, where zero is extremely unfavorable and 100 is very favorable. The somewhat tepid 43.1 percent thermometer reading for the Democratic Party was only slightly better than the 41.8 percent for the Republican Party. "Democrats in Congress" pulled just 41.3, scarcely above the 39.1 score for "Republicans in Congress." Respondents in districts represented by Democrats gave their members a 57.4 thermometer rating. Republicans got a reading of 49. Some of this may reflect those same marginal Democratic advantages seen in an earlier question. Another explanation might be that most of the weak Democrats, particularly some of the more "exotic and potentially problematic" (E&PP) members elected in the 2006 and 2008 waves were culled in last year's 63-seat loss. (Obviously, Republican E&PPs are still in office.)

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner usually doesn't poll traditional generic congressional ballots, preferring instead to use the incumbent's actual name. For opponents, the firm just uses party affiliation. Using that methodology, the national picture is tied at 46 percent. Although one could argue that Republicans theoretically should fare better because they hold more seats, Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to retake the majority, which would require something of a wave. But these numbers suggest that there is no wave. (Only once since World War II has the party holding the White House gained more than 15 House seats in a presidential election year. That was President Johnson's 1964 landslide over then-Sen. Barry Goldwater).

The evidence suggests that 2012 will be a more "micro" election of the all-politics-is-local variety than a "macro" wave like 2006, 2008, and 2010. Challengers who succeed are more likely to win because of incumbents' shortcomings and vulnerabilities than because of the color jersey they wear. The exceptions will be lawmakers who won in a wave and probably were misaligned with their districts' partisan makeup to begin with.

Republicans have more E&PP members and more members in misaligned districts. They also have incumbents in areas where Democrats have redistricting advantages. All of this brings me to the prediction that Republicans will likely lose a few seats, as many as 10 or even 15, but hold their majority. In the Senate, Democrats have more E&PP incumbents. Their incumbents face more exposure, and the numbers are working against them: Democrats have 23 seats to protect versus 10 for Republicans. And they have 10 endangered seats to the GOP's two so far.

Image credit: Cliff Owen/AP