Absurdly premature presidential-election coverage comes in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps my favorite kind of story is the one that relies on current statistical rumblings to divine the contours of a race that hasn't even started yet.
The latest classic of the genre is Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin's new piece on Politico, "Dems' Blues: States Reverting to Red." Citing polling data that shows Democrats at risk of losing ground in North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, and Indiana, Smith and Martin claim that "the rapid reversal in Democratic fortunes in the very places where [Barack] Obama's success brought so much attention suggests that predictions of a lasting realignment were premature." In fact, they write, it's possible that "the president's 2008 win was the result of a unique set of circumstances that will be"—gasp!—"difficult for him to replicate again" in 2012.
This is at once a) extremely obvious and b) totally wrong. And it certainly doesn't tell you anything worth knowing about the 2012 presidential contest.
I'll start with the extremely obvious part—i.e., all the stuff about "a lasting realignment." Smith and Martin treat the idea that Obama "consigned the red state-blue state presidential dichotomy to the bookstore remainders bin" like it's conventional wisdom—something that's widely accepted and ripe for a good debunking. But only the looniest pie-in-the-sky partisans ever thought that Obama's narrow 2008 wins would keep North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, and Indiana eternally blue. Instead, the standard view has long been that the president's victories in those conservative-leaning states were the result of a "unique set of circumstances," as Smith and Martin put it: namely, an uninspiring Republican candidate; an unusually favorable climate for Democrats, especially in the West, where President Bush's moralistic, big-spending ways had alienated otherwise sympathetic libertarians; an unprecedented GOTV effort; and increased turnout among African-American voters, which boosted Obama's numbers in North Carolina, Virginia, and northern Indiana.
The second half of this list won't be too difficult for Obama to "replicate again" in 2012. But the first half will be, and no one with half a brain ever really thought otherwise. Obama didn't transform North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, and Indiana into blue states. He transformed them into swing states. We shouldn't be surprised—or, like Smith and Martin, act surprised—when they continue to swing, especially if Obama himself is not on the ballot. Besides, the president's party has "lost an average oftwenty-four House seats in the interim elections [since World War II], gaining ground onjust two of sixteen occasions." It stands to reason that the states Obama won by the slimmest margins in the previous election are the ones where Democrats would be on the shakiest ground this time around.
Which brings us to the "totally wrong" part. Simply put, there's absolutely no historical reason why we should expect the 2010 midterm elections—let alone polls and chatter from nine months before the 2010 midterm elections—to tell us anything about how Obama will fare in North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, and Indiana in November 2012. Why? Because this kind of prediction has never panned out before. In the 1994 midterms, two years after Bill Clinton became the first Democrat since 1964 to win California, Colorado, Illinois, Montana, Nevada,New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Vermont, Republicans picked up House seats in California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Hampshire, and New Jersey and won the gubernatorial race in New Mexico. Disaster? Not quite. In 1996, Clinton hung onto every state on the list except for Montana and Colorado and defeated Bob Dole by 220 electoral votes.
Same goes for Reagan. In the 1982 midterms, Democrats won congressional seats in New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Delaware while replacing Republican governors in Arkansas, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin—all swing states that Reagan had carried in the 1980 presidential election. Then he won them all again in 1984. So it seems sort of silly to hyperventilate about Obama's chances in the "new blue states"—even if Democrats wind up losing some ground there in November. Nine months is a lot of time. Two years and nine months is even more. Obama may lose the "new blue" states in 2012. He may win them. But as history shows, where we are now has very little to do with where we will be then.
It's not that Smith and Martin are wrong to point out that Dems are doing poorly in Indiana, Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina. It's that they're wrong to pretend that what they're pointing out is either unpredictable or even remotely predictive. Stories like "Dems' Blues" are written, as a Politico editor once put it, to "win the morning"—that is, to drive the debate on cable TV and in the Beltway blogosphere. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But ultimately, we should probably be paying more attention to the wrangling in Washington over health care and the deficit. At least those stories have something to do with reality.