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The Big 2010 Question

Just attended a morning-long presentation by the team over at the Cook Political Report–namesake Charlie Cook, affiliated pollster Tom Riehle, gubernatorial/Senate specialist Jennifer Duffy, and House specialist David Wasserman. I have lots of details, plenty of stats and trends and other goodies to share and unpack for you, and will do so in a series of posts in the coming days.

But as I walked back from the Watergate to my Logan Circle neighborhood, I became increasingly convinced that the big question for both parties–and particularly the Democrats–is one I raised this morning on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan show: How replicable is Barack Obama’s precedent-setting presidential coalition in an off-year election?

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It’s easy to just say, well, it’s not replicable. Of course it isn’t exactly replicable. The so-called “Obama surge” voters clearly will not turn out at the same rates, and thus not constitute the same proportion of the electorate a year from now that they did a year ago. So the question really is, To what degree, along some continuum between the 2008 presidential electorate and the ones from the 2009 elections this week, will 2010 look like one or other other? And looking backward may provide poor guidance: Because there’s never been an electorate assembled like the one Obama did in 2008, we’ve also never had a post-Obama midterm cycle.

Yes, issues and the economic-political environment and the resources that candidates and parties–money, quality of candidates, messaging, field and contacting operations–will all be contributing factors next November. I will come back in a future posts to talk about which of these factors might buffer the expected Democratic losses, and which might exacerbate them.

But all of these factors are ultimately mediated to some, significant degree by the electorate and its composition. That said, I want to start this series of posts with a very simple question that is, more or less, directed at the Obama White House political operation, and can be rather simply stated: One year out, what are you planning to do in order to safeguard your newly-acquired congressional, gubernatorial and even state legislative majorities?

This question in turn begets a variety of sub- and even sub-sub-questions, for which the following is hardly an exhaustive list:

  • On agenda-setting, do you need to constrict the national policy conversation to fewer agenda items, presumably those more finely attuned to the national economic situation, and how can you do that? Even David Frum admits that rising health care costs the past decade consumed potential income gains…but how many Americans truly understand this and, even for those who do, how long are they willing to wait for their incomes to rise again as a result of savings on premiums? Relatedly, for those without an earned income right now, what messages and themes are you planning to deploy if unemployment a year from now is not significantly below 10 percent?
  • On candidates–and this question also lands squarely in the laps of DSCC chair Bob Menendez, DCCC chair Chris Van Hollen and DGA chair Brian Schweitzer–are you thinking about where the president will be a co-campaigning, coattail asset and where he will be a drag? Which races will you attempt to localize and which will you attempt to nationalize? Given rising frustration with incumbents, do you need a different strategy for incumbent, challenger and open-seat Democrats? Speaking of potentially open seats, how do you make sure that worried Democratic incumbents do not retire this cycle?
  • On contacting and turnout, for downballot Democrats, how much are you going to make available the types of voter and fundraising lists, as well as volunteer tools and tactics generated between late 2007 and Election Day 2008 to elect Obama? Indeed, which sorts of resources are even transferable, which not, and how do you utilize the ones that are? Are you at all worried that the technology chasm you created between the parties in 2008 will narrow or even disappear by 2010, and if so, how worried and what will you do about that?
  • On messaging, what will it take to mobilize the “Obama surge” voters? Do they need to have the 2010 midterms contextualized as a safeguard of their votes cast for the president in 2008? How much of their turnout and support is a function of Obama-mania, or whatever you want to call the specific attachment to the president as a political identity/commodity, and how much of it represents a medium- to longer-term established political identity and partisan attachment? Are you surveying these people about their post-election attitudes and concerns? In order not to trigger an older and/or white voter backlash, might you need to use dog-whistle signaling to the younger and more multi-racial “surge” voters to get them to turn out in 2010, and if so, how will you do that?

I realize it’s far easier to pose questions than to answer them. But these questions need to be asked, and the Obama political team–which I suspect is thinking about them this week if they weren’t already–had better start generating some answers.