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Lessons Learned in 2010, Part 1: Fundamentals Matter

With 2010 now over, and an entirely new and less favorable political climate clouding the skies in Washington and many states, it's appropriate to take a quick but definitive look back at the political lessons of this last year.

After having mulled over the midterms for a good while, I'm convinced their preeminent lesson to Democrats is to avoid overthinking what happened on November 2.

It's easy, after we all painstakingly followed every daily twist and turn in the Obama administration's strategy and tactics during its first two years, to assign a great deal of political freight to mistakes it made or opportunities it did not embrace.

But the best starting point for assessing the impact of things Democrats did or didn't do is to look at the impact of things beyond their control. And preeminent among those are the condition of the economy (largely inherited from the Bush administration) and the very different turnout patterns in 2010 as compared to 2008.

To boil a lot of data down to a simple conclusion, it appears that about half the swing from Ds to Rs between 2008 and 2010 was attributable to changes in turnout patterns rather than to changes in voter preference, as you might suspect when you see exit polls showing a dead heat in 2008 presidential preferences among 2010 voters (actually, given the well-established tendency of poll respondents to "remember" they voted for the winning candidate, the 2010 electorate would have almost certainly elected John McCain president).

Now it has often been asserted that the 2008-2010 changes in turnout patterns were themselves attributable to the mistakes of the Obama administration or Democratic congressional leaders--i.e., that the "enthusiasm gap" between Republican and Democratic voters (a turn of phrase often used as though "enthusiasm" is interchangeable with "willingness to vote"). But the counter-indication to that diagnosis is the simple fact that 2010 turnout patterns were fairly typical for midterms; what's changed is that as of 2008, the tendency to vote Republican became positively correlated to age (at least among white voters), a pattern that persisted in 2010. Latino and (to a lesser extent) African-American turnout also tends to drop between presidential and midterm elections.

A less tangible but equally significant structural factor is the nearly universal experience of parties losing congressional seats in midterms two years after taking over the White House, a sort of voter reflex that has occurred in all sorts of circumstances. The only exceptions in living memory to the "midterm swoon" rule happened in 1934, the first New Deal election, and in 2002, the first election after 9/11.

Add into the standard midterm turnout patterns and the "midterm swoon" the "over-exposure" problem--a landscape in which a very large number of traditionally marginal House districts were held by Democrats after the very successful 2006 and 2008 cycles--and it's reasonably clear in retrospect that major Republican gains in the House in 2010 were inevitable the day after the 2008 elections, regardless of the bad economy and anything in particular Democrats in office did or didn't do.

But you can't, obviously, ignore the economy as a factor in the 2010 elections; indeed, many observers, particularly among political scientists, consider it the preeminent factor. A thorough analysis done in 2009 by Sean Trende suggests that very high and persistent unemployment has regularly produced big midterm losses for the party in power (though there really aren't enough examples to support any particular predictions of particular losses). Another probable indicator of the impact of the bad economy is the sharp break against Democrats in 2010 by independent voters, who typically had very high "wrong track" perceptions of government and low approval ratings of Obama, but didn't exhibit much support for Republican policies or the GOP itself.

Some progressive Obama critics might well argue that perceptions of responsibility for the bad economy were fatally influenced by the failure of the White House to aggressively blame Wall Street or corporations. But outside the Republican base, most 2010 voters were far more likely to say they blamed George W. Bush or Wall Street than Obama for the bad economy, so it's not clear much could have been done (other than producing a better economy) to insulate Democrats from a general "wrong track" tendency to express dissatisfaction by voting against the party in power.

So adding it all up--normal midterm turnout patterns, the natural reaction to a new administration, over-exposure of Democratic House seats, and the anti-party-in-power impact of a bad economy (regardless of "blame" for it), you can account for most of the Democrats' midterm losses before even getting into an evaluation of Democratic policy proposals or messaging. Meanwhile, such ephemera as the relationship between Obama and outspoken elements of the progressive coalition claiming to represent the Democratic "base" are even more dubious as major factors, particularly when you look at the Obama's consistently high job approval ratings from self-identified liberal Democrats, and the evidence that unhappy Democrats may have been more likely to vote than those pleased with Obama's performance in office.

None of this is to suggest that policies and messaging, or strategy and tactics, didn't matter in 2010, or that more mechanical factors like money and the eclipse of Obama's 2008 mobilization effort didn't matter, too. But given the vast attention paid to such factors as opposed to the structural issues I've emphasized here, any consideration of lessons learned in 2010 should prominently feature a much closer look at the fundamentals, which many Democrats need to understand precisely in order to grasp how they may work in Democrats' favor in 2012.