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Interview: Seth Masket on the 2010 midterm elections

"By most measures, the economy has been improving this year, but voters will be thinking about whether it’s been improving quickly enough," says Seth Masket, an associate professor in DU’s political science department. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Seth Masket, an associate professor in DU’s political science department, specializes in political parties, campaigns and state legislatures. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009).

Q: What would you say is the No. 1 issue for the upcoming elections?

A: The No. 1 issue remains the economy. It’s the issue that put Obama in the White House, and it’s the one on which he and his fellow Democrats are being evaluated and will be held accountable. By most measures, the economy has been improving this year, but voters will be thinking about whether it’s been improving quickly enough.

Q: You’ve done extensive research on the effects unemployment has had on midterm elections and found that there hasn’t really been much correlation between the two. But doesn’t unemployment tie into the state of the economy?

A: There are many different aspects of the economy, only some of which seem to affect people’s vote choices. The level of unemployment, however important it is to many people’s lives, doesn’t seem to particularly affect midterm elections. In 1982, President Reagan was overseeing an unemployment level near 10 percent. However, Republicans only lost 26 House seats that year, which is just about the average over the past 60 years.

Q: What are the key issues facing Coloradans this cycle?

A: Colorado has weathered the recession somewhat better than other states, but it’s still taken a great toll. The state government has had to make many drastic spending cuts to balance its budget. Many Coloradans will be thinking about declining funds for public education and other areas when they head to the polls.

Q: Because of the criticism President Obama has received on his response to the BP oil spill, do you predict this issue will hurt Democrats this year?

A: It’s difficult to say what, if any, effect the BP oil spill will have on Democratic prospects this fall. Many congressional Democrats have been arguing for many years for tighter regulation of the petroleum industry and for limits on offshore drilling, and those arguments are certainly gaining traction. On the other hand, voters may simply blame Democrats because they are the party in power right now. Nonetheless, if BP is successful in largely stopping the leaks, the issue will fade from the headlines, even if the environmental impact will be felt for many years.

Q: If the GOP reduces the Democratic majority to just a few seats in the House and Senate, do you see President Obama pivoting and taking a more centrist approach?

A: President Obama has shown himself to be very pragmatic and not interested in taking on fights he can’t win. Working with a narrower Democratic majority, he would likely still push a solid Democratic agenda but would likely make a number of concessions to Republicans. As Republican numbers increase in the Senate, so does their ability to sustain a filibuster.

Q: What is your prediction for the fall?

A: Voters tend to think about the recent past when casting their votes. The results of the election will hinge on how strongly the economy improves over the next few months. Democrats are almost sure to lose seats in the Congress, but faster economic growth can mitigate some of those losses. Should the economy stumble back into recession, that could certainly lead to a Republican takeover of both chambers.

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