How to avoid an electoral catastrophe

HOW TO AVOID AN ELECTORAL CATASTROPHE…. It seems more than a little premature to start thinking seriously about win-loss ratios in the midterm elections. They’re 14 months away, and no one has any idea what the national landscape will look like a year from now.

That said, if modern political history is any guide, it stands to reason that Democrats will lose some seats in Congress in the 2010 elections. A Politico piece today ponders what’s realistic in terms of Republican gains.

After an August recess marked by raucous town halls, troubling polling data and widespread anecdotal evidence of a volatile electorate, the small universe of political analysts who closely follow House races is predicting moderate to heavy Democratic losses in 2010.

Some of the most prominent and respected handicappers can now envision an election in which Democrats suffer double-digit losses in the House — not enough to provide the 40 seats necessary to return the GOP to power but enough to put them within striking distance.

Charlie Cook is talking about a 20-seat gain for the GOP in the House. Democratic officials expect the number to be around 10. David Wasserman puts the number between nine and 26. Nate Silver believes it could be anywhere from 20 to 50. Stuart Rothenberg thinks Republicans should “very happy” with a net gain of 12 to 15 seats.

All of this is subject to change, of course, because it’s still very early. And for all the talk about 1994 redux, there are several reasons — regional realignment, retirements — that won’t exist in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the result of the fight over health care reform will make a very big difference, and if Dem strategists are thinking about how to improve their chances, the reform fight offers a pretty big hint. Three words: motivate the base.

For all the talk in the Senate about scaling back reform, making the bill weaker, less effective, and less generous to middle class families, there’s ample evidence that will only make matters far worse for Democratic candidates 14 months from now. Motivated conservatives will be furious either way, because even trying to bring about some reform has been deemed outrageous. The question is whether lawmakers will give progressive voters an incentive to head to the polls.

The political danger is not just that a failure on health-care reform will anger the electorate. It will also change the composition of the electorate. Dispirited Democrats will stay home. Energized Republicans will press their advantage. Add in that the wave of young voters who were energized by Obama’s campaign probably aren’t going to turn out for the midterm election anyway, and you’re looking at a pretty unfriendly landscape.

That’s why the midterms are dangerous for Democrats. Losing on health care and collapsing into recriminations and internal divisions pretty much guarantees that Democratic voters of all sorts are turned off. You don’t just win elections by being popular. You win elections by making sure that the people who like you turn out to vote.

Voters who may be inclined to vote Democratic will need a reason. Policymakers need to give them one.