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Prepare Yourselves for Speaker Boehner

Earth to House Democrats: It’s time to push the panic button. But don’t take my word for it; consider the evidence.

Exhibit A: One of the country’s savviest political scientists, Emory’s Alan Abramowitz, has just published an analysis that says the GOP will pick up 39 seats in the House this November. On the good news side for Democrats, Abramowitz finds more safe seats this year than in 1994 (145 versus 114) and fewer that are marginal (42 versus 55) or that lean Republican (69 versus 87). And there are only 15 open seats this year in Republican-leaning districts, versus 24 in 1994. On this basis he concludes that a Republican tide as strong as it was in 1994 would yield fewer losses for Democrats, but still enough to lose their majority by the narrowest of margins.

Exhibit B: Another of the country’s most experienced survey researchers, Stan Greenberg, who’s hardly unsympathetic to the Democratic cause, has just come out with the most discouraging survey Democrats have seen since, well, his 1994 surveys. He surveyed 1,200 likely voters in the 60 most competitive Democrat-held districts and ten most competitive Republican-held districts. In Tier 1 (the 30 most vulnerable Democratic districts), Democrats trailed by 48 to 39 overall. In Tier 2 (the 30 next most vulnerable districts), they trailed by 47 to 45. And in the contestable Republican districts, they trailed 53 to 39.

A closer look at the data helps explain these results. In the 70 battleground districts, likely voters are much more likely to believe that the country is on the wrong track than are voters nationally. Fully 49 percent in Tier 1 and 46 percent in Tier 2 self-identify as conservatives, and Obama’s approval stands at only 40 percent in both tiers. By 59 to 35 in Tier 1 and 56 to 39 in Tier 2, voters endorse the proposition that “President Obama’s economic policies have run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses.” (They still blame Bush more than Obama for the state of the economy, however.) In the 60 Democratic districts, only 37 percent of Democrats say that they are very enthusiastic about voting in this year’s election, versus 62 percent for Republicans. While a surge among independents boosted Democrats in 2006 and 2008, this year that key group is breaking for Republicans 50 to 29 in Tier 1 and 51 to 34 in Tier 2. And most discouraging of all for Democrats: Greenberg tested a number of different themes and arguments Democrats might use against Republicans this fall, and not one worked well enough to turn the tide.

Exhibit C: In a survey out earlier this week, Gallup researchers looked at the voters’ broad assessment of the major political parties. They asked (as they have done from time to time), “In general, do you think the political views of the Democratic Party are too conservative, too liberal, or about right?” In 2008, 50 percent said “about right” versus 39 percent “too liberal.” Today, the reverse is the case: 49 percent say “too liberal” and only 38 percent “about right.” During that same period, the share of the electorate assessing Republicans as too conservative has fallen from 43 to 40 percent, while the share seeing them as about right has risen from 38 to 41 percent. Among independents, the share seeing Democrats as too liberal has risen from 40 to 52 percent, versus a decrease from 43 to only 33 percent seeing them as about right.

Democrats must face the fact that much of the legislation that seems both necessary and proper to them looks quite different to the portion of the electorate that holds the balance of political power. And they must face a choice as well—between (to be blunt) the politics of conviction and the politics of self-preservation. They can continue on as they have been going since January 2009, or they can adopt a concerted strategy designed to take the edge off public anger and reduce their losses. They can spend the summer arguing about matters like immigration, climate change, and the war in Afghanistan, all of which are valid and important but way down on the public’s list of the most urgent problems—or they can refocus on jobs and the economy, reinforcing the “Recovery Summer” theme the White House unveiled on Thursday.

It’s too late to enact legislation that will actually affect the economy’s performance between now and November, but it may not be too late for Democrats to better align their agenda with the public’s economic concerns. And they could get lucky: The four remaining employment reports between now and the election might show accelerating job creation in the private sector and a more rapid decline in unemployment than we have seen thus far. That would give embattled incumbents the chance to argue—more credibly than they can now—that we’re on the right track and shouldn’t turn back.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that none of this matters now, that the voters likely to turn out this fall have already concluded that with one-party control of the legislative and executive branches, Democrats will continue to take the country further to the left than the majority of the electorate would like. If so, Democrats should probably prepare themselves for the two words they dread the most—“Speaker Boehner.”