Next week's elections mean nothing, nothing

That’s partly because these are gubernatorial races. No one on the ballot in either state has voted on Obama’s stimulus plan or the House or Senate’s health-care bills. And even if some voters do use next Tuesday to register an anti-Obama protest vote, that says nothing about what the electorate will do when Obama’s name is actually on the ballot. In fact, for a president, incurring voter anger in your first and second year in office isn’t such a bad thing. Presidencies have an arc. The key is to make sure that your trough comes early so that you’re gaining strength as reelection rolls around. That’s what Ronald Reagan did: The GOP went one for two in the 1981 Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections; then lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterms, during the depths of recession. But by 1984, the economy was rebounding and Reagan cruised to victory. Similarly, in 1993, Bill Clinton’s first year, Democrats lost in both Virginia and New Jersey before getting crushed in the 1994 midterms. But Clinton won easily in 1996. The counter-example is George H.W. Bush. Republicans held their own in his first midterm elections, in 1990, and Bush’s popularity zoomed skyward in 1991, after America’s victory in the Gulf War. But like a sports team that peaks too early, he was in free fall by the time he came up for reelection in 1992.

So let’s imagine that Democrats lose next week because the GOP’s conservative base flocks to the polls while liberals stay home. For Obama, that wouldn’t be so terrible. The more confident right-wing Republicans become, the more likely they will nominate a Palin-like zealot in 2012. And the more likely Obama will be able to use the GOP’s zealotry to lure independent voters to his side, as Clinton did in 1996, when he made Newt Gingrich a central focus of his reelection bid.