Fascinating read from Larry Sabato....

"Safe" to Vote No: Analyzing the Debt Ceiling Vote

Larry J. Sabato, Isaac Wood and Kyle Kondik, U.Va. Center for Politics August 4th, 2011

What a week it has been! As the political world recovers from its deep exhaustion and wonders about the fallout from the debt ceiling deal, it's worth taking a step back.

First, let's all remember that 15 months from now, when Americans go to the polls to vote for president and Congress, this summer storm-intense squall though it was-will have been superseded by other tempests.

In November 2012, voters will probably be focused on the moribund economy, not the debt. Almost lost in the shuffle of the last week's real or manufactured crisis was the sobering news that the United States' gross domestic product grew only at a paltry 1.3% clip in the second quarter. The first quarter was downgraded to a truly miserable 0.4% growth rate. President Obama needs that number to be close to 3%, if not higher, to achieve a comfortable reelection. If the economy doesn't pick up soon, Obama's once-bright prospects for reelection could be history, along with his White House tenure-assuming, of course, Republicans nominate a mainstream candidate that can appeal to swing voters and appears to be a credible possible occupant of the Oval Office.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent-Democratic liberal, has said that, "it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition." While no such candidate is currently on the horizon, a serious primary challenge to Obama would further endanger his reelection prospects. An opponent doesn't have to be big-league to cause a problem for the president. Time, money, and energy would have to be spent to minimize the protest vote in early caucuses and primaries. Any president would rather be unopposed so he can keep his eye on the general election ball.

It's true that challenges to incumbents vary in intensity and effect. Presidents Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 both held off strong opponents (Ronald Reagan and Edward Kennedy, respectively), but partly as a consequence, they lost their general elections. Compare this to the innocuous situation enjoyed by President Richard Nixon in 1972. Nixon was challenged by Rep. John Ashbrook (R-OH) to his right and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA) to his left yet Nixon won 87% of the primary votes and emerged emboldened from these minor skirmishes.

If a challenge to President Obama arises at all, we would expect it to be minor. But it is difficult to say precisely how angry liberals are at what they regard as a "cave-in" to the Republicans on the debt deal-after a similar Republican-leaning agreement on the Bush tax cuts last December. On the one hand, the left might fear inadvertently helping the rising Tea Party, and once again give Obama the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, Sanders' view might prevail, reminding Obama that the left has somewhere else to go, at least for the nomination contest.

While the general public will probably move on quickly from the debt ceiling debate, the Tea Party and the left will not, and both groups matter greatly in their chosen political party's primaries. In addition, whatever we are talking about at election time, the just-held vote on the debt ceiling will be a-maybe "the"-key vote of the 112th Congress, and one that opponents of incumbents, in both primary and general elections, will attempt to spin to their advantage.

The deal to raise the debt ceiling passed both Houses of Congress quite comfortably: 269-161 in the House and 74-26 in the Senate. It's impossible to know for certain why any individual members voted one way or the other, but it appears that members were largely free to vote their conscience: Whips on both sides of the aisle didn't need to engage in major arm-twisting, given the likely margin of passage.

We'll have Mr. Sabato on Happening Now at 11:40