Sabato: GOP Really Could Win it All in 2014

The respected pollster, pundit, and prognosticator kicks off the year with his take on GOP chances for the mid term.

Another midterm election beckons, and over the next 10 months we'll see headlines about a thousand supposedly critical developments-the "game changers" and the "tipping points." But we all know there aren't a thousand powerful drivers of the vote. I'd argue that three factors are paramount: the president, the economy and the election playing field. And, at least preliminarily, those three factors seem to be pointing toward Republican gains in both houses in the 2014 midterms.


1. The president. His job approval numbers are perhaps the best indicator of the public's overall political orientation at any given time, a kind of summary statistic that takes everything at the national level into account. In a large majority of cases, the president's party does poorly in midterms, especially the second midterm of a two-term administration.


2. The economy, but mainly if it's bad. Eisenhower's 57 percent approval rating couldn't prevent Republicans from losing 47 House seats and 13 Senate seats in 1958 because of a shaky economy. GDP growth had contracted by an astounding 10.4 percent in the first quarter of that year, though it rebounded later in the year. More recently, there was the 2006 election; while most analysts thought the Democratic takeover of Congress that year was mainly about Bush's war in Iraq, the economy wasn't performing on all cylinders. GDP growth in the second and third quarters of 2006 was an anemic 1.6 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively. The economy, still reeling from the 2008 economic near-collapse, was also the root cause of the Democrats' 2010 debacle.


3. The electoral playing field. How many vulnerable seats are there in the House for the president's party? This is mainly a result of prior elections. A presidential victory with coattails (think 1936, 1948, 1964 and 2008) results in a party winning lots of vulnerable seats that can be swept away when the tides change in subsequent midterms. The Democrats lost their weaker members in 2010 and failed to add many seats in 2012; these disappointments protect them from drastic House losses this coming November.

The Senate is a different story. There is no such thing as a typical Senate election. These high-profile contests are idiosyncratic, driven by distinctive circumstances, sometimes quirky candidates and massive spending. A hidden determinant is the division of the Senate into three classes-one-third is elected every two years, making the combination of competitive Senate seats unpredictable and ever shifting, unlike in the heavily gerrymandered House. One party is usually favored to gain seats from the outset, thanks to the pattern of retirements as well as the structure of the Senate class on the ballot.

Nothing very complicated there, as simple truths dominate politics. For Republicans, the challenge will be keeping the public' focus squarely on the president and the failure of Obamacare while parrying Democratic thrusts on income inequality and more of the "War on Women" meme.

The playing field certainly favors the GOP. And while the economy may improve at the margins, there will probably not be a massive increase in the number of jobs this year. Many will still think we're in a recession.

Obamacare will keep the president's numbers down - along with the possibility that his foreign policy will continue to unravel in full view of everyone. All of this will lead to the impression of incompetence and weakness.

The 2014 mid terms is the GOP's to lose. But recent history has shown that Republicans are expert at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Let's hope that recent history doesn't repeat.

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