A Preview of Post-Election Storytelling

I'm bracing for an avalanche of nonsense tomorrow night about why Barack Obama is responsible for the expected Republican landslide. Here's a guide to what you should expect.

It's long been obvious that Obama's political standing would decline as a result of the poor economy and the passage of time. Similarly, substantial Democratic losses in the House were always likely given the large number of seats the party had to defend in a midterm election in which it controls the presidency. The continued weakness of the economy subsequently appears to have enhanced the Republican advantage, helping to produce tomorrow's pro-GOP wave.

Instead of focusing on these structural factors, journalists and other political figures have constructed a staggering number of ad hoc claims about messaging, tactics, etc. to "explain" what has happened to Obama and the Democrats:

-Obama's message is not populist, thematic, simple, and/or comprehensive enough;

-Obama failed to "connect" with voters (in part because he often uses a Teleprompter);

-Obama has no chief economic spokesperson, lacks sufficient political and policy integration, has failed to distance himself from congressional Democrats, and needs to delegate more to his cabinet on domestic policy;

-Obama is seen as an elitist;

-Obama failed to establish a rationale for his agenda during the campaign;

-Obama is "too articulate";

-Obama dislikes politicking, lacks intensity in campaigning, and shows indifference on the stump;

-Obama is unlucky and "Americans get nervous when they have a snakebit president";

-Obama has not defined himself, and Americans don't know who he is.

Some of these factors may play a role on the margin (particularly the public's view of Obama and the Democrats as too liberal), but the effects are likely to be relatively small and should be judged against an appropriate structural baseline rather than the implausible counterfactual that Democrats would be riding to victory if they had only used tactic X. The reality is that political tactics tend to work when the fundamentals are favorable and fail when they're not. That's why even Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton couldn't save their parties from significant midterm losses in 1982 and 1994. Why would we expect Obama to succeed where they failed?

It's also likely that we'll hear implausible claims that the Republican victory will help Obama by creating a foil for the White House and/or allowing him to move toward the center. Last week, for instance, NPR ran a story noting that the presidents who lost control of Congress during their first term were all reelected. In it, host Guy Raz claimed, "like Truman and even Eisenhower, President Clinton was able to convince the public that the problem in Washington was Congress and not him. And it's how he was re-elected in 1996."

However, as I've noted many times before, Clinton's victory was primarily the result of the growing economy, not the Republican Congress, his move toward the center, or the government shutdown. As John Sides correctly argues, divided government is likely to be bad for Obama because he'll "have less power but no less accountability."

To help entertain you tomorrow night, I've created a handy bingo chart of these claims so you can play along with the pundits at home: