The Justice Department has “secretly obtained” two months of conversations between Associated Press (AP) officials in a move called “unprecedented”. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Cincinnati office singled out new conservative groups for extra scrutiny over the past couple of years. One of these controversies alone would have caused a headache for the Obama administration, but the two of them together could spell big trouble for the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.
Historically speaking, trust in government has been tied very closely to how people view the state of the economy. When consumer sentiment is up, trust in government goes up. When consumer confidence goes down, trust in government goes down. Pew Research has a very nice chart that illustrates this relationship.
You can see how the two lines generally flow together. This especially the case after 1970 – before which time trust in government was higher than it’s been over the past 40 years. Right now consumer confidence is 76.4. That’s down from earlier this year, but it’s up significantly since 2010.
Trust in government isn’t, however, always linked to the consumer sentiment. After the Watergate scandal, trust in government remained in a relatively low stable position through 1977, even as the economy improved. Trust in government fell in response to the House banking scandal in 1992 and Whitewater controversy of 1993 and 1994, as consumer confidence climbed. Finally, the economy was improving, but trust in government fell off its post-9/11 highs through the early part of the first decade of this century as Americans angered over the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina that pounded the Gulf Coast.
Put another way, scandal can negatively impact how much Americans trust. It has to be a big scandal though. Benghazi, for instance, is likely not going to do it. Most Americans aren’t paying attention to it, and as many Americans think the Republicans have gone too far as handled it appropriately.
The tax scandal, however, can play that role. My friends at NBC’s First Read note
“The IRS story packs a bigger political punch… [and] will trigger new congressional hearings and new questions for the president and his team. More significantly, the IRS news is a political gift to a Republican Party whose base was strained on immigration.”
The idea that the IRS would go after conservative groups, who hate the IRS, specifically seems to make a lot more sense than a president not wanting to create a foreign policy crisis in which be could benefit from a rally around the flag effect.
The obtaining of AP records likewise probably makes more sense in the voters’ eyes. Obama has been critiqued for not doing enough press conferences or interviews with White House reporters. As one Democratic strategist put it, the “AP phone records thing just sealed the deal for what the newest narrative around Obama administration is going to be”.
Indeed, these stories are coming at the perfect time for peak scandal coverages. Brendan Nyhan notes that scandals more often happen when the president is detested by members of the other party, as Obama is. Likewise, they are more likely to become big news when there aren’t other news stories like the Boston bombings. Finally, scandals are more likely to take place in the beginning of the second term.
Therefore, the question is whether declining trust in the government has historically played a major factor in midterm elections. It turns out that it does. When trust in government falls, the party in the White House tends to do worse in midterm elections.
This 2010 graph from Pew Research illustrates the point well.
Trust fell dramatically in the lead up to the 1974 midterms thanks to Watergate, and the Republicans lost nearly 50 seats. Trust absolutely tumbled in the lead-up to the 1994 midterms, and Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party lost over 50 seats. Democrats took back the house in 2006 as Americans trust in the Bush administration dropped. And although it isn’t on the bottom chart, Americans trust in government, as seen in the top chart, was bad in 2010. Republicans gained 63 house seats.
On the reverse, there was minimal change in the composition in 1986, 1990, 1998, or 2002 when trust in government was relatively high.
So what does this mean for 2014? There are reasons to believe that Democrats shouldn’t see major losses. The economy is doing better, and an incumbent president’s party rarely loses big twice in midterms. Still, if trust falls, it may trump these structural factors. The thing to watch over the next days, weeks, and months is how big the scandals become. If they become big news, and that seems quite possible, Obama’s Democratic party may be heading for major losses in 2014.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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