When it comes to midterm elections, voter enthusiasm is everything. Relative to presidential years, midterm turnout is depressed. Without the hype of a presidential battle, the only people you can really rely on to hit the polls are the party faithful; those folks who'll turn out rain or shine. If you give them a reason, that is.
Now that health-care reform has passed, the Democratic rank and file have that reason. While conservatives have been riled up since Obama set foot in the Oval Office, the enthusiasm that carried Obama there steadily dwindled, along with Obama's approval ratings. But early signs are that the passage of health reform has altered that dynamic. A new Washington Post poll found that 76 percent of registered voters who lean Democrat are enthusiastic about voting for them in the midterms, compared with 75 percent of Republicans. For all the talk this year of the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans, the gulf appears to have evaporated. Midterms are nearly always a referendum on the incumbent party, so that's huge news for Democrats.
Health reform, it turns out, was not the political Armageddon Republicans made it out to be. According to the poll, Pelosi and Reid have emerged from the fight without significant bruising. In fact, it seems to have even buoyed Pelosi's favorability ratings with liberals.
One of the biggest pieces of good news for Democrats is buried in the cross tabs. When asked if it would be a "good thing" if control of Congress switched from Democrats to Republicans this year, 36 percent of registered voters said yes, 34 percent said it would be a bad thing, and 29 percent said it didn't really matter to them. While that mightn't look like good news per se, the comparison to 2006, where Democrats won in a landslide and assumed control on Congress, is telling. When asked in October of that year if Congress switching to Democratic control would be a good thing, 47 percent of voters agreed while only 23 percent thought it would be a bad thing.
Democrats will surely lose seats this fall. But Pelosi can afford to lose a few. In fact she can lose 30 and still keep her gavel. Similarly, Harry Reid, if he manages to hold on to his own seat (a questionable proposition right now), can lose eight seats before he has to worry. Of course, either of those scenarios would be troublesome for Obama's agenda. But they're certainly not a political End of Days. If these numbers are any indication, Democrat losses will be far from devastating.
That said, anything can happen. Democrats can still royally screw up. I wouldn't be placing bets just yet.