Our temptation to prognosticate is nearly insatiable and our media-driven politics exacerbates this tendency. The reliability and value of these predictions is tenuous at best. Poll-driven politics is obsessed with “who’s ahead” and “who’s behind.” Rather than reflecting reasonable scholarship and knowledge, these projections are often either misguided guesses or wishful thinking on the part of a partisan media.
Following the election of President Obama and the increase in the Democrat majority control of both the House and Senate in 2008, numerous articles, television stories, pundits and op-ed pieces predicted that the country was headed towards increased Democratic control for the coming years. With this trend would be the requisite Republican Party decline, followed by years in the wilderness. This assessment concluded of course, that the country had made a significant shift in favor of liberal Democrat policies.
In the past few days, however, new polls have begun to show a resurgence of the Republican Party! The general favorability rating comparing the public’s confidence between Democrats and Republicans shows increasing dissatisfaction with the Democrats, accompanied by either steady ratings or slightly improving ratings for the Republicans. Reviewing specific polling data for both 2009 and 2010 elections, Republicans are leading in key gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia (both states carried by President Obama) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is trailing two potential Republican candidates in his re-election bid.
This recent shift in favorability ratings should not be interpreted as a definitive sign that the Republicans will realize a 1994-like resurgence, although it is certainly possible. Such a prediction at this time would be just as rash as that of those following the 2008 election who said that the Democrats would be in control for an extended period of time.
The United States has been in a fairly steady trend of divided government for the past 30+ years. More often than not, the public have elected the president from one party while favoring the other party with control of the legislature. In most of the elections cycles, either party has had a reasonable chance of electoral success. The events during the 2008 election, of course, were strongly stacked against the Republicans in favor the Democrats, but this was unique in our recent history.
This recent era is distinctive in American politics, for while we have always been a two party system, we have experienced long periods where one party was clearly dominant. For instance, form the 1860 election until the late 1920’s, the Republicans were unmistakably stronger than the Democrats, winning the White House, controlling the Congress, controlling a majority of state governments and leading in party registration. A similar trend existed favoring the Democrats from Roosevelt’s victory in 1932 through the mid-1960’s. Since that time, we have seen a public willing to support either party’s candidates, often willing to split their vote between the parties. Recent elections have been decided more often on individual candidates and/or salient issues during an election cycle.
While pundits seek to make bold predictions concerning polling trends, parties and candidates would be wise to temper their forecasts. Voter memory is short. Apparent trends in November of 2008 or in late August of 2009 may very well be worthless by the time the next election cycle rolls around.