Election Preview

November 2, 2008 06:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Obama still ahead in polls; Dems to pick up more House, Senate seats

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

PRESIDENTIAL RACE: Most polls show Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.) increasing his prior lead, with several rural states (North Dakota and Indiana) too close to call. Republican presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) is hoping for a late surge, with some observers noting he needs a 'Hail Mary' pass to win a critical state for him – Pennsylvania.

One of the states where the polls close early, Virginia, is seen as a potential barometer of who will win (Va. polls close at 7 p.m. EST). Pundits say that should Obama take this typically Republican state, enough of the electoral map will be colored blue (Democratic) and provide him with 300-plus electoral votes to take the White House – 270 are needed.

However, others say this election could be closer. Polls show Obama up by three to 13 percentage points. The difference is due in part to assumptions on the number of young and black voters who will actually cast ballots.

Timeline: Polls close in most of Indiana and around half of Kentucky at 6 p.m. EST. If the initial results suggest an Obama victory in Indiana, it will be a long night for the Republicans. In Kentucky, the race to watch is the Senate slot, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a close contest, but with McCain ahead in the state, McConnell should be safe. Ohio's polls close at 7:30 p.m. EST.

SENATE: Democratic leaders are hoping for a total of 60 seats – they now control 51, 49 Democratic seats and two Independent senators caucus with the Democratic Party. Sixty seats would give the Democratic leadership the ability to halt filibusters and allow them to better set the agenda. Even top Democrats say it will be hard to reach the 60-seat mark, with some predicting a net gain of eight wins. But the 60-plus mark would likely be garnered if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is defeated. Even if the Democrats fall short of 60, they would likely be able to coax a few moderate Republicans to get to the filibuster-ending 60 votes.

Looking ahead, Republicans will face another uphill battle on rebuilding their ranks in 2010 elections, as 19 Republican seats are up for reelection, and 15 Democratic seats. But the GOP focus will shift to 2012 when 22 Democratic, 7 Republican and two Independent seats will be up for grabs.

HOUSE: There clearly will be more Democrats in the majority for the new, 111th Congress than under the current chamber. Most see no major shift in Democratic leadership coming out of the elections, although Republicans could challenge their leadership if they lose 20 or more seats. (Election-year experts are predicting Democratic House gains of 15 to 30 seats.)

The impact of more Democrats in the House is that it will be easier for the majority party to set and move their agenda.

Another impact: more power for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

IMPACTS FOR CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEES: In the wake of an expected increased Democratic majority in both chambers, the number of Democrats on committee will increase, as will the number of Democratic staffs and their budgets. This is important because it will be easier to move a Democratic agenda out of the committees and onto the floor with a bigger majority and more staff available to work on the issues. Another result: diminished Republican power all around.

CHANGING SENATE CHAIRMANSHIPS: There potentially will be some big shifts in Senate panel leadership, perhaps including the Agriculture Committee eventually. The health problems of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) may eventually force a change in the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. If so, current Agriculture panel chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is next in line. If he jumps to the Health panel, the next three in seniority for the Ag panel would likely keep their current chairmanships: Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Next in line for the Ag Committee: Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).

Another shift may be needed if Obama wins the presidency, as his vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) would no longer head the Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is next in line but reportedly wants to keep leading the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Next after Dodd on Foreign Relations: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Should Dodd jump to Foreign Relations, next in line for the Banking panel is Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).

Ailing Senate Appropriations Committee chief Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) could be eased out and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) would be his successor. Also, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) could lose his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee as a “reprimand” for backing McCain.


-- Timing and degree of change: If Obama wins, change will come faster in Washington than if McCain wins the presidency.

-- Spending: Congress will still spend a lot of money during the last days of 2008 and the first few months of 2009 despite a growing budget deficit, as they have the remainder of Fiscal Year 2009 to fund (the current Continuing Resolution goes into early March), and there is an economic stimulus package on the to-do list. While most believe the stimulus package is a lame-duck session item for the existing Congress, it could be bumped to the new Congress if Obama wins the presidency and Democratic leadership wants more leverage as to the details of the package – especially if current President George Bush threatens a veto of the second stimulus plan.

The deficit hangover comes for Fiscal Year 2010 and beyond via the medicine in the FY 2010 budget resolution and budget reconciliation, which will mean even agriculture will not be exempt from coming budget cuts.

Impact: No matter who wins the White House, Cabinet selections will likely be those individuals who can help get expected budget cuts pushed through and help effectively communicate that need to stakeholders.

-- Rural vote: Observers will see whether or not the Democratic Party made gains in the presidential and congressional elections in rural areas. If so, to what degree?

-- A mandate to govern? Democrats will likely claim they have a mandate to govern the way they see fit – both at the congressional level, and at the White House should Obama win (and especially if he garners 50 percent or more of the presidential vote and/or 300-plus electoral votes).

--Trade Policy: Another item on the watch list is whether the anti-trade stance some candidates (from both political parties) used actually succeeded. If so, new and even proposed trade deals will have tough sledding.

Comments: I will focus on more specific implications regarding agriculture, economic, energy and trade policy once official results are in. But for now, I offer this regarding agriculture: If McCain wins, he would not be able to get his no-subsidy platform through a strengthened Democratic Congress.

But a McCain administration would have some say regarding how programs are administered. He would also likely be a bit more flexible in bringing more sugar imports into the country – but Congress tried to put more constraints on the administration in this regard.

If Obama wins the presidency, I see no major changes in farm policy initially – as the 2008 Farm Bill passed by a wide margin. But Obama's campaign language noted support for a ban on packer ownership of livestock a few weeks prior to slaughter.

I see an Obama administration Justice Department more active in opposing proposed mergers. I would have to see which Obama we get as president: the populist he appeared to be during the Democratic primary campaign, or the more pragmatic campaigner he was once he got his party's nomination.

Both McCain and Obama are in favor of tightened farm program payment limits – a position likely to be met with some resistance from southern farm-state lawmakers who, however, may find a more powerful push for tighter limits – perhaps in who actually gets the payments (active farmers, etc.).

On the farm policy front, it will be important to see the actual Cabinet and other personnel selections, not only at Agriculture, but at the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Trade Representative, the White House chief of staff and other officials who will have an impact on agriculture policy.

Food safety reform would be on the likely agenda under an Obama administration, and definitely in a Senate with more Democrats.

On the economic front, Democrats would be more likely to put some funding in for infrastructure, and extended unemployment benefits, both of which will likely be included in the next economic stimulus package. Increased financial regulation is being pushed by both McCain and Obama.

On the energy front, both Obama and McCain support renewable energy, but with different feedstock approaches. McCain is more supportive of nuclear energy than is Obama.

On trade policy, McCain is about as fair-trade oriented a president can get. Obama during the primaries tilted to the left regarding a more trade protectionist approach. His selection for U.S. Trade Representative could be the first signal as to whether or not he follows through with his primary tilt, or whether he takes a more pragmatic approach – new, but different trade agreements.

Regarding environmental policy, increased regulation is ahead no matter who becomes president.

Bottom line: One must be careful regarding how to read the election results. Why? We currently have a president with only a 23 percent popularity approval rating, and the worst economy since the 1930s. Obama should have won in a cakewalk, and getting just over 50 percent of the popular vote is not a mandate -- despite President Bush claiming a "mandate" after his last election in which he garnered under 50 percent of the vote. Republicans will hope that a victorious Democratic Party will overreach and if so, the GOP will set their turnover sights on 2012 elections.

As for the rural vote, I see a smaller percentage in favor of McCain than is typical for a Republican nominee. Whether or not that is just a McCain factor remains to be seen. During my many speeches throughout the country, more than a few farmers and ranchers who usually vote Republican have told me McCain has gone out of his way to be negative toward existing farm and corn-based ethanol policy, and that has turned some of those Republicans away from their party's choice.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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