The impact of the presidential election Nov. 6 will depend less on who actually wins than on their margin of victory and what happens in congressional races.
That’s the consensus of political scientists like Arthur Sanders of Drake University, who says whoever wins the election is likely to face the same challenges President Barack Obama has dealt with for the past two years if the results are more of the same — meaning split control of Congress.
In that case, he says, “there will be minimal change.”
Sanders and fellow political scientists predict that regardless whether Obama is awarded a second term or replaced by Republican Mitt Romney, they expect Democrats to hold the majority in the Senate and the GOP retain control of the House.
If that’s the case, Tim Hagle, who teaches political science at the University of Iowa, believes Romney may have more willingness to work with Congress, including Democrats. Hagle bases that on Obama’s unwillingness to use the president’s bully pulpit to advance his agenda.
Sanders isn’t sure how Senate Republicans will act if Obama is re-elected. There’s a chance they will be more cooperative, he speculates.
“On the other hand, the Senate Republican caucus may lose some of their more moderate members, and add more conservative members, making them less likely to cooperate with Obama,” Sanders says.
The more immediate consequences of the election, suggests Donna Hoffman, chairwoman of the University of Northern Iowa political science department, is that the results may give direction to the lame duck Congress that will return to Washington after the election.
“In essence,” she says, the current Congress “made a decision that they would see what the election results look like before they decide how they will deal with the Bush tax cuts expiring and automatic spending cuts taking effect as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act.”
“Knowing who will be president and the makeup of the new Congress may help the lame duck Congress understand whatever message voters send at the ballot box,” Hoffmann says.
When 2013 rolls around, however, Drake political scientist Dennis Goldford expects little cooperation from the GOP if Obama is re-elected.
There are some Republicans — Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, perhaps — who would reach across the aisle, Goldford says. However, some of the more bipartisan Republicans like Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana have been given the heave-ho by the Tea Party, according to Goldford.
Most Democrats and traditional Republicans look at Congress and the country as an “old house that needs some renovation … but the Tea Party says, ‘Burn the sucker down,’ ” he says.
“It’s grim. It’s discouraging,” he says. “Given where we are now, unless the parties get religion and decide they have to work cooperatively, I don’t see any way out of the gridlock.”
Hagle is more optimistic about the possibility of the parties working together. The opportunity might be greater under a Romney administration, he says, because the political reality is Romney may be able to get a few of his proposals approved by winning over some Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014.
Congress, Goldford says, is a bit like a driver’s ed car. The driver controls the accelerator and brake, “but you go nowhere unless instructor takes his foot off brake.”
“If the idea is, ‘I’m not taking my foot off the brake on the passenger side until the driver is someone I want it to be,’ then we go nowhere,” Goldford says.
If Obama is re-elected, Hagle expects the stalemate will continue.
“If Obama wins, I can’t see the Senate flipping to the Republicans, so part of the problem will lie with Congress,” he says. “Obama has no real incentive to break the logjam because second-term presidents often start to consider their legacy.”
Mandate or no mandate?
Although the victor in the presidential race is likely to claim a mandate, no one thinks it’s likely it will exist.
If Obama’s re-elected, “it won’t be by the same amount as last time, so in that sense it will be is less of a mandate,” according to Goldford.
In that case, Obama wouldn’t have much of a mandate “and the GOP would continue to argue the same positions they have been for the last few years,” Hagle says.
Besides, “the 2016 caucuses start Nov. 7, so (Obama’s) basically a lame duck,” Goldford adds.
Any way you look at it, “We’re really in for a rotten time. We really are on pretty much any issues you want to talk about,” Goldford says.
He blames the “hyper-partisanship” of officeholders and political activists.
“The officeholders talk to the extremes because the extremes control the nomination process,” he says. “The more anguished and animated and extreme you are the more likely you are to vote.”
But the public at large isn’t as polarized as the activists “and that’s why the mass public is fed up with everybody,” Goldford says.
“It’s very discouraging,” he says, adding it’s enough to make him wish he was a chemistry professor.