HILL: The Political Misery Index for Democrats in 2022

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrives to meet with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. Congressional leaders reached a deal to lift the nation's debt limit that will allow Democrats to increase the nation's borrowing authority without any votes from Republicans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

No scientist or biologist can prove it in the lab — yet — but elephants in tropical areas have been seen fleeing the low country near beaches before a tsunami caused by an earthquake thousands of miles away hits shore. The conjecture is that animals have a “sixth sense” that can detect impending danger. 

Veteran elected politicians on both sides have a “sixth sense” when it comes to their political future. They can just “feel” when the political tectonic plates are shifting against them and their party. They don’t want to be on the beach when the 100-foot wave hits and swallows up everything in sight. 

Many voluntarily choose to retire. It is more dignified than getting defeated at the polls. They say they want to “spend more time with the family.” Behind closed doors, this is what they say in all honesty: “Man. I really do not want to get embarrassed by losing big in the next election! I have been a great Congressman!” 

As of today, 20 Democrats in Congress have announced their retirement versus 17 Republicans. In North Carolina, up to 15 Democrats in the General Assembly will retire or run for other offices even before the new redistricting maps are finalized. 

Research has been done to correlate the number of retirements with net losses of seats in Congress since 1938. The number of retirements on each side is essentially useless in presidential election years since presidential politics swamps almost every other factor in such years. 

However, in off-year congressional years such as the one we are about to enter in 2022 — as hard as that is to be believed — retirements are helpful indicators of what might happen in the upcoming elections. It is not the absolute number of retirements that makes a difference, but rather it is the net number of retirements relative to the other party that can be the canary in the mineshaft for either party. 

In 2018, 37 Republicans and 18 Democrats decided to retire from Congress for a net retirement difference of +19 Republicans. Democrats rode a blue wave of progressive socialism and hatred against President Donald Trump and gained 40 seats from Republicans. Statistical analysis predicted about 50 seats would be lost, so Republicans actually did better than expected in 2018. 

In 1994, 25 Democrats in Congress retired versus only nine Republicans, which included the congressman I worked with, Alex McMillan of Charlotte (NC-09), who retired after five terms in office because he simply had had enough. Republicans rode the wave of sentiment against Bill Clinton’s version of national health care, which was affectionately dubbed “HillaryCare” since Hillary Clinton was the point-person for the effort, and picked up 54 seats. 

The most glaring anomaly was 2010 when almost an equal number of Democrats (14) retired as Republicans (13), but Republicans picked up an astounding 63 seats in Obama’s first mid-term. It must have been because Obamacare was passed after filing deadlines had passed in many states. Obamacare, which really was HillaryCare on steroids, ignited the nationwide Tea Party revolt against centralized control of health care when signed into law on March 23, 2010.  

Retirements means more open seats for challengers. In the world of politics, that is of enormous consequence since 90-95% of all incumbents everywhere get re-elected due to the equally enormous advantages of incumbency. Incumbents raise more money because they are incumbents. Incumbents get to announce big projects for their districts because they are incumbents. Unless an incumbent commits a felony — although dozens have been convicted of various charges and still gotten re-elected by their constituents — they usually win easily simply because their name ID is higher than their opponent. 

The Misery Index invented by LBJ economic advisor Arthur Okun measures the sum of the unemployment rate and inflation rate at a given time. The Political Misery Index for Democrats in 2022 is going to be the inflation rate plus the number of retirements they see at every level of government. 

It could be a tsunami building that they are feeling under their feet. Just like the elephants.