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31.10.2014
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America's march of folly in the Middle East continues
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Yoram Ettinger

The 2014 six-year-itch election

President Barack Obama's maneuverability, domestically and internationally, will depend on the outcome of the very critical November 2014 six-year-itch election campaign, which is already underway.

The outcome of Obama's second midterm election -- which clipped the wings of many second term presidents -- will determine his capability to become a transformational president. It will either coalesce House and Senate Democrats around him, or will doom him to a lame duck presidency, transferring top Senate leadership positions and all committee and subcommittee chairmanships to the GOP.

Success in a six-year-itch election is critical at a time when the president and his own party's legislators are naturally growing asunder. The president will never again have to face "We will remember in November," while all the legislators will be on future ballots, facing the consequences of their actions and the wrath or gratitude of their constituents.

Obama's challenge is to sustain the vulnerable Senate Democratic majority and defy the odds by regaining the House majority. To meet that challenge, the president will have to focus on critical domestic priorities such as a budget, unemployment, debt ceiling, immigration reforms, gun control, health care, Supreme Court appointments, energy and climate and environment. He will attempt to galvanize support for his priorities among constituents and their representatives, who have systematically demonstrated robust support of Israel.

Exerting pressure on Israel and facing a defiant Israeli prime minister would undermine, not galvanize, public and congressional support of Obama. In fact, unwavering support for the Jewish state across partisan and denominational lines has been one of the very few remaining common denominators between Democrats and Republicans on a highly polarized Capitol Hill.

Midterm elections in general, and six-year-itch elections in particular, are troublesome for second-term presidents, primarily in the Senate. The party of almost every second-term president in recent history sustained large losses during these elections.

According to Nate Silver, who precisely predicted the presidential winner in all 50 states and in 31 out of the 33 Senate races in 2012: "A race-by-race analysis of the Senate suggests that Republicans might now be close to winning control of the chamber. Our best guess, after assigning probabilities of the likelihood of a GOP pickup in each state, is that Republicans will end up with somewhere between 50 and 51 Senate seats after 2014, putting them right on the threshold of a majority." In 2008, Silver accurately predicted all 35 Senate races (New York Times, July 15, 2013).

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball newsletter points out that "in 17 post-World-War-II midterm elections [from Truman in 1946 to Obama in 2010] the average loss [for the incumbent president's party] is about 27 House seats, four Senate seats and four governorships."

Second-term presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford (who completed Nixon's second term) suffered the worst losses: an average of seven Senate seats and 53 House seats.

Charlie Cook maintains that "in the second term, midterm election, the party holding the White House has lost a significant number of seats in the House, Senate, or both, to the tune of five of six times since World War II. In the House, the average loss has been 29 seats and in the Senate six seats. The lone exception was 1998, when Republicans suffered a backlash against their efforts to impeach and remove President Clinton from office, breaking the pattern with a five-seat GOP loss in the House and a wash in the Senate."

Mathematically, the 2014 election bodes well for Republicans, featuring 21 Democratic and only 14 Republican Senate seats, with five Democratic and only two Republican senators retiring. The GOP hope for a net gain of six seats to regain a Senate majority is based on the open (currently Democratic) seats in the red states of Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, on vulnerable Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska (Obama lost all four in 2012), and the retirement of Democratic incumbents from the currently "purple" states of Michigan and Iowa.

Obama's plunging approval rating -- 41%, the lowest since December 2011 -- bolsters Republican hopes. Historically, presidents with approval ratings in the 40s have suffered significant blows during midterm, and especially itch-year, elections. A persistent decline in Obama's popularity could produce a macro (nationalized) rather than a micro (localized) election, highlighting Obama's record rather than that of the legislators. Former President Bill Clinton boasted a 63% approval rating in October 1998, which paved the road to the Democratic House gain.

However, Democrats count on the recent blue trend among minorities, women and younger voters and Republican vulnerability in Georgia and Kentucky. Mostly, they count on a repeat of the 2010 and 2012 Republican failures to avoid primary victories by unelectable Senate candidates -- such as Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, Nevada's Sharron Angle, Indiana's Richard Mourdock and Missouri's Todd Akin -- which snatched Republican defeat from the jaws of easy victory.

Will Obama join Harry Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon/Ford, Ronald Reagan and Gorge W. Bush, who all suffered setbacks in their six-year-itch elections? Or will Obama join Clinton, the only president since World War II whose party gained seats in the House and sustained its Senate seats?

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