Obama's best chance for re-election? Democratic losses in 2010, says UCLA political scientist

September 16, 2010

In the aftermath of the 2008 election, the Republican Party was in disarray. In two short years, they'd lost control of the presidency, the House, the Senate and most state governments.

But since the Democrats' moment of triumph, their fortunes have dramatically reversed. President Obama's approval ratings now hover at the lowest of his term in office, and signs point to an epic Democratic defeat in the 2010 midterm elections.

In a new book, a UCLA political scientist argues that if Democrats want to see Barack Obama reelected in 2012, losing control of Congress might be just what the doctor ordered.

"It's no surprise that Democrats are struggling now. It's simply electoral poison for the majority in Congress to have a president of the same party," said Tim Groeling, chair of the UCLA Department of Communication Studies.

In "When Politicians Attack! Party Cohesion in the Media" (Cambridge University Press), Groeling looks at how each party's members work together to form a valuable "brand name" that they can use to win elections. While parties work hard to win as many elections for their members as possible, Groeling argues that achieving unified government, in which one party controls both the presidency and Congress, ends up damaging the governing party's brand in the eyes of the same voters who will later decide whether they stay or go.

"Every time you see divided government, it sticks around for a while," Groeling said. "But every time you have unified government, it breaks up very quickly, and the news media have a lot to do with it."

Groeling bases his views on a painstaking analysis more than 4,000 hours of political coverage that aired on network television from the Ronald Reagan through the George W. Bush administrations. He found that self-interested politicians and well-intentioned news-reporting practices consistently sabotage unified government and reward divided government.

"Unified government gives the governing party total responsibility, but that means they have total accountability," he said. "If they fail to deliver on even one of their promises, they have no one to blame but themselves. In other words, if something goes wrong for the governing party in unified government, the firing squad forms a circle. That sort of ugly intra-party feuding turns out to be exceptionally damaging to their standing with voters."

Even if the governing party works together to achieve a worthy objective, common journalistic practices unintentionally consign legislators from the president's political party to "life in the shadows," unable to take credit for the successes that could return them to office, Groeling explained. And when legislators from the president's party actually do manage to secure coverage, they tend to do so in the context of criticizing the president, which ends up damaging their party's brand.

Such violations of the so-called Eleventh Commandment -- "Thou shalt not criticize a fellow partisan" -- occur at nearly twice the rate of intra-party praise of the president, Groeling's analysis found.

Several routine media practices repeatedly surfaced as obstacles to fair coverage of legislators from the president's own party, Groeling found. Reporters' preference for the most authoritative figure in any situation invariably increases the likelihood that they will be more likely to feature the president over these legislators. If the president is featured in coverage, a commitment to balance perspectives of one party with those of the opposition also limits the opportunity for coverage of legislators from his party -- except if they are criticizing him.

Additionally, a preference for conflict over cooperation tends to emphasize discord over genuine successes. And a preference for statements of high credibility, as measured by the political cost to their speaker, means criticism of the president by members of his own party will have far more impact than criticism by opposing party legislators.

Groeling analyzed occasions when news coverage showed positive or negative evaluations of Washington lawmakers, tracking the source and target of the evaluation.

When he tallied the frequency of these evaluations on the nightly news, legislators from the president's party finished dead last, with only 13 percent of mentions. Legislators from the opposing party received more than twice as many evaluations. The president, meanwhile, hogged the spotlight, receiving three times more evaluations than legislators from his party.

"While the president is generally assured coverage on the evening news, the congressional parties are often left fighting for scraps of news time," Groeling said. "People vote on your achievements, and if they haven't heard about them, they don't know to vote for you."

That does not mean, however, that legislators from the president's party failed to get coverage. It's just that the coverage typically came at the expense of their party. With the exception of just one administration since 1981, legislators from the president's party were quoted twice as many times criticizing their leader as praising him, Groeling found. The exception was Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed a 50󈞞 split between intra-party praise and criticism -- a high proportion of criticism for a president still deeply revered by his party.

"Given the news media's preference to highlight discord within a governing party, even small disputes are nearly certain to be magnified," Groeling said.

In fact, the amount of criticism from presidents' parties on network television news sharply diverges from the legislative support enjoyed by their administrations, Groeling found. According to Congressional Quarterly's presidential support score, legislators from the president's party voted in accordance with their leader about 75 percent of the time. Yet their evaluations of the president, as reported on television news, were supportive of their leader only 40 percent of the time.

"Supporting comments about the president clearly are being left on the cutting room floor because it's just not being perceived as newsworthy," Groeling said. "The press is basically filtering out presidential support from his party."

As a result, the presidential party presents mixed and divisive messages that make it appear incompetent, even if individual legislators have a strong and productive legislative record, according to Groeling.

"It's not surprising that voters rarely return legislators to office in a unified government," he said. "Traditional media are providing voters with scant reasons for doing so."

In contrast, both parties benefit from divided government because it gives politicians "an ironclad alibi for failure," Groeling said. "A politician coming under fire in divided government can generally get away with blaming the other party for any failures that occur on their watch."

Unlike criticism of the president by his own party -- which damages the president's standing with most voters -- criticism from the other party is only credible to voters of that party, Groeling contends. Moreover, in divided government, members of the presidential party can concentrate their rhetorical fire away from fellow partisans, concentrating their attacks on the common enemy.

"In unified government, the opposing party is typically too weak to present a compelling target for attacks," he said. "That's one of the reasons why Obama has spent so much time attacking former President Bush during his first two years: He's searching for a Republican figure to attack, and congressional Republicans have been too weak to serve as a compelling, credible target."

While Obama undoubtedly will disagree with much of the legislation that might be produced should Republicans take control of either chamber of Congress, Groeling believes the president should do better politically in such a setting.

"With his own congressional party weakened and muted, Obama will be able to customize the Democratic brand to one more suited to his own reelection," he said. "He will also benefit from facing a common Republican 'enemy' that will both serve as a scapegoat and allow Democrats to 'uncircle their firing squad' or start taking aim at someone other than themselves."
UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 323 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Five alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

For more news, visit the UCLA Newsroom or follow us on Twitter.

University of California - Los Angeles

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