Q&A: Stanford's Segura on midterm elections

L.A. Cicero Gary Segura

Stanford political science professor Gary Segura

The midterm elections are Tuesday, and Democrats are in big trouble. Unemployment is above 9 percent, a conservative base is activated and liberal loyalists are disillusioned. Barring a political miracle, Democrats are all but guaranteed to lose control of the House and see their numbers erode in the Senate.

Stanford political science Professor Gary Segura spoke with Stanford Report about the upcoming election and how President Obama's two years in office helped shape today's political landscape.

"Barack Obama attracted more two-party votes than any Democrat in a generation," said Segura, who co-directs Stanford's Center for American Democracy and the American National Elections Studies. "So it's not surprising that two years later, the enthusiasm for Democrats has waned simply because it was so high before. It is common – it is essentially the rule – that presidents lose seats in the midterm. In this case, though, the question is: Why would you lose so many seats?"

Segura is also chair of Chicana/o studies at Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. 


Give us an overview of the expected Democratic losses and Republican gains.

The Republicans need to net 40 seats to take control of the House. They are very, very likely to do that. I think they will net 50-plus seats. They're well mobilized, well motivated and extremely well funded. The president is not very popular and, most importantly, the economy is in the tank.

In the Senate, it's much less rosy for the Republicans. They need a net of 10 seats to take control, and they are very unlikely to reach that. It is easy for them to get to four or five, but after that they'd have to run the table on every close race.


Why are Democrats in such trouble? Is it the blowback from a bad economy and the passage of the health care bill, or is there more at play since Obama's election?

The economy is the biggest issue. Unemployment is high, economic growth is low, and that's going to exacerbate the losses of the incumbent party. Health care is less of an issue than the media has made it out to be, but it's icing on the cake. The administration has made a huge political error. It's a failure of leadership on Obama's part that has two elements, and he has no one but himself to blame.

The first is a failure to narrate the story of the economy in such a way that those who are behind the circumstances are held responsible. We had this train wreck of an economic collapse in 2008, and we have a significant public-sector intervention to keep the banking system from collapsing. This was in many ways one of the most successful efforts at managing an economic crisis in history, and he's gotten zero credit for it.

And the Republicans seem to have almost zero blame for the economic tragedy. But the Obama administration is to blame for failing to manage that politically. Even though Obama ran an effective campaign two years ago, it's been a particularly ham-handed political operation since they've been in office.

The second big fail is the stimulus. It's a fail not because it exists but because it was too tepid and too shy. It hasn't produced the employment spur it needed to. Most economists felt that you needed a stimulus of about $1.2 trillion. Instead, you got a stimulus of $739 billion. It was cut by a third, and we were left with not enough.


While campaigning for legislative candidates, Obama has insisted the economy is headed in the right direction, even as unemployment rates are above 9 percent. What chance does he have of convincing voters to believe in his optimism?

There's zero chance he convinces anyone that things are better. People can look around them. If you have one-in-six Americans struggling to pay their bills, the odds that any individual knows somebody in those circumstances are actually really high. The economy would've had to be doing significantly better in June and July for public opinion to start to tick up significantly. It's not that the economy does better on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning people are happier. It just doesn't work that way.


How has the Tea Party movement factored in, and what will Republican victories do to help shape its future and the future of the GOP?

First of all, there is no Tea Party. It's just a sea of anger. But they are going to have an effect in a few ways. If the Democrats keep control of the Senate, the Tea Party is to be thanked, in part, for that. The Tea Party may have cost the GOP some seats.

With respect to the Tea Party types who do get elected – let's say Sharron Angle [who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada] wins. Does it benefit the GOP to essentially have a wackadoodle as a United States senator? Or Rand Paul? [Running for an open Senate seat in Kentucky.] Take your pick. These folks are going to be very difficult for mainstream Republicans to work with and negotiate with.

The success of the Tea Party – in some sense – is more of a problem for the GOP than the Democrats. Imagine a Senate GOP conference with Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio [Florida] and Roy Blunt [Missouri] in it. These are very unusual people. There are already a few oddballs who are unwilling to even play nice with their own team. And all of a sudden, there are 10 people who won't play nice with their own team? Well, good luck to your team.


How are Obama's core supporters feeling about his administration?

Let's think about the failures of the Obama administration with respect to the core constituencies that mobilized on his behalf in the primary and 2008 election: Is Guantanamo Bay closed? No. Has the United States withdrawn from either overseas war? No. Has the procedure of extraordinary rendition ended? No. Has anyone been put on trial for torture? No.

Obama promised during the campaign not to allow any additional offshore drilling. He then opens up a third of the U.S. coast to additional offshore drilling. One week later, Deepwater Horizon blows up. And he did this ostensibly in exchange for Republican votes for cap-and-trade, a bill that was never actually brought to the floor. So for the environmental community, he's a disaster.

How does he fare with immigration advocates? Well, more people were deported under Barack Obama than George W. Bush in a similar time period. Latino enthusiasm for him has been very low. He's doing much better now, but he has not been viewed very positively.

And gays and lesbians? Oh my god. The list of wrongs is pages and pages long. Promising to end "don't ask don't tell," and then defending it in court. Promising to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and then defending it in court. He lost in both cases and is now appealing both cases. So will gays and lesbians be turning out for him and his party? Not so much.

And then there are the unions. They thought they were going to get card check [legislation intended to help ease union organizing]. Not only was that never voted on, but union workers got a tax on their health benefits as part of the health care plan.

So, there you have unions, environmentalists, gays and lesbians, and Latinos. And the Congressional Black Caucus is furious with him, too, but they won't criticize him in public. There's been remarkably little energy directed to addressing any kind of inequality that is faced by people on the lower end of the economic scale, and they're pretty upset with that.


Is there anything Democrats can do this late in the game to mobilize new support to help turn the tide in their favor?

It seems unlikely. The other big problem, apart from administration's refusal to give up on a bipartisan fantasy, has been an almost kneejerk desire to take its constituencies for granted in hope of trying to attract and retain independent voters.

Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, agorlick@stanford.edu