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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis March 25, 2011
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Cook: Modern Voters Increasingly Likely to Change the Channel on Congress
BY KATHERINE LEWIS, Special to Passenger Transport

Modern-day voters give little time for the political party controlling Congress to advance an agenda before they grow impatient and return the other party to power, compared with voters in the 20th century, said Charlie Cook, publisher of The Cook Political Report and political analyst for the National Journal Group, at the March 13 Opening General Session of the 2011 APTA Legislative Conference in Washington.

He noted that Democrats controlled the House for 40 straight years, from 1955 through 1994, through 20 consecutive elections. Then Republicans held control for 12 years until 2006, a shorter time frame.

“The circle is getting smaller and smaller and tighter and tighter,” Cook said. “Voters do not have the patience, they do not have the tolerance that they had when they’d put one party in power for 40 years or another party in power for 12 years.… It’s a totally different mindset than when all of us were kids.”

Independent voters have become the deciding factor in congressional elections, Cook stated, showing that support from independent voters made the difference between big Republican wins in 2010 and gains by Democrats in 2006. In both years, independents favored the winning side by an 18-point margin.

“It is the role and behavior of independent voters that are making that huge difference,” he said. “If this were an Austin Powers movie you’d say you get your mojo from these independents.”

Polls leading up to the 2010 elections found a whopping 60 percent of independents agreeing with Republicans that the government was doing too much—handing that party a big win. Currently, only 47 percent of independents believe the government is too heavy-handed, much closer to levels seen before the financial crisis, Cook said.

He emphasized that the economy was a big factor in the fall elections, as it will be in the 2012 presidential election. “When you have a 9.8 percent unemployment rate, even if voters weren’t mad at you for anything else, they’d beat the heck out of you anyway,” he said. “People vote their pocketbooks. They vote their economic well-being far more than they vote anything else.”

‘No Long Coattails’
Even if President Barack Obama is re-elected—which is likely, Cook said, given that the majority of sitting presidents who ran for second terms have won them—history suggests that he’s unlikely to be much help to Congressional Democrats looking to regain power. In 1972, when President Richard Nixon was re-elected with wins in 49 states, Republicans picked up only 12 House seats and lost two in the Senate. In 1984, when President Ronald Reagan won a second term with 49 states, Republicans only gained 14 House seats and lost two Senate seats. In 1996, when President Bill Clinton won re-election, Democrats only eked out another three House seats and lost two Senate seats.

“There’s not a pattern of long coattails for presidents, even when they’re winning by big or even historical margins,” Cook said. “The only way Democrats can get the House back is if Republicans completely and totally self-destruct.”

Cook predicted that Republicans are likely to gain control of the Senate in 2012, when 23 Democratic senators—including many who rode into office on a wave against Republicans—are up for re-election. “We’re looking at divided government for a while,” he said. “We’re going to be looking at Republicans holding onto the House for a while, taking the Senate, and holding it for two to four years after that.”

The Republican nominee for president will likely be either former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or a less well-known challenger, according to Cook. He suggested that the three other best-known potential GOP candidates—former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—either have too much baggage or are unlikely to give up lucrative private-sector positions to run.

In terms of public transportation, tight budgets at the federal, state, and local levels are likely to push projects out further in time. “The new reality of the next year or two, this is going to be a lot tougher than a lot of us ever thought,” Cook said. “A lot of the really exciting things that we’ve been really looking forward to, and I think are really important for the country, are going to be on a longer fuse.”

URS Corporation sponsored the session.
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