For politicians, the election cycle never ends. Now that the 2010 midterms are over—or almost—it’s time to start thinking about 2012. Two years from now the real prize, the presidency, will be back on the table. With a divided Congress likely to mean gridlock, both parties will spend most of the next two years jockeying for position in the next elections. The Democrats are likely to rebound from their devastating losses in the midterms, but the key factor will once again be the economy. If unemployment hasn’t come down substantially the Democrats will be in serious trouble.
The recent elections, as I have argued, weren't a referendum on President Obama so much as an expression of national frustration over the stagnant economy. But if the economy doesn’t pick up in the next two years, then Obama will have a hard time winning reelection, even though so far the Republicans don’t have an obviously strong candidate to challenge him. The frontrunner for the Republican nomination is Mitt Romney, who is not particularly popular with social conservatives and may never live down the fact that his Massachusetts health care plan was the model for health care reform. A recent AP-Gfk poll finds that Sarah Palin has the highest favorability rating among Republicans, but she is very unpopular with the independents she would need to win the general election. The other likely candidates with national name recognition are Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich. Party favorites who are longer shots include Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Mississippi Governor and former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, and—as I have suggested—Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN).
Even if the economy is still faltering, Democrats have a good chance to bounce back in Congress. Midterm elections tend to be dominated by seniors, who largely vote Republican. But with the presidency at stake and Obama on the ballot again, liberal young voters will return to the polls in larger numbers. With a majority in the House, Republicans will have more seats to defend—many of them seats in districts Obama won—and won’t be able to put all the blame for the economy on Democrats. But even if the Democrats are able to retake the House, they may still lose the Senate. Many more Democrats than Republicans are up for reelection in the Senate. And Politico reports that as many as 9 Democrats seats may be competitive, and argues that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) are particularly vulnerable.