Obama and the Woes of the Democrats

June 22, 2010

Democrats are acknowledging they'll lose ground in the midterms. The only question is how much. Today, the evidence points to quite a lot.

The most important indicator is the president's job approval. In the Real Clear Politics average of the last two weeks' polls, President Obama has a 48% approval and 47% disapproval rating. This points to deep Democratic losses. The president's approval rating last November was 54% when his party was trounced in New Jersey and Virginia.

On the economy, a mid-June AP poll reported that Mr. Obama has 45% approval, 50% disapproval. That's a dangerous place for any president when jobs are issue No. 1.

The problem is worse in swing areas. Last week's National Public Radio (NPR) poll of the 60 Democratic House seats most at risk this year showed just 37% of voters in these districts agreed Mr. Obama's "economic policies helped avert an even worse crisis and are laying a foundation for our eventual economic recovery"; 57% believed they "have run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses."

Mr. Obama also suffers because his handling of the catastrophic Gulf oil leak has undermined perceptions of his competence. Both national and Louisiana polls rate Mr. Obama's handling worse than the Bush administration's Katrina response, widely viewed as a tipping point in that presidency.

Mr. Obama's failures mean he can't lift his party by campaigning. A Public Policy Poll earlier this month reported that 48% said an Obama endorsement would make them less likely to vote for the candidate receiving it, while only one-third said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by the president.

Republicans jumped into the lead last November in Gallup's party generic ballot match-ups among all voters, and since March the GOP has led or been tied every single week except one. In the Rasmussen Poll's tracking among likely voters, Republicans have been ahead by an average of seven points, 44% to 37%, since March. This reflects a significant political development—independents breaking for the GOP.

Then there is the intensity gap, which is particularly important in midterms. In Gallup, 45% of Republicans are "very enthusiastic" about voting this fall versus 24% of Democrats. This staggering 22-point gap is the largest so far this election year. And in the NPR survey of 60 swing Democratic districts, 62% of Republicans rated their likelihood of voting as 10, the highest. Only 37% of Democrats were similarly excited.

All these trends are influencing individual races. Though twice as many Republican Senate seats are being contested in November, state-by-state surveys show if the election were today, 49 Democrats and 43 Republicans are poised to win. Eight races are too close to call, but Republicans lead in five.

House races are historically much more difficult to predict. But the NPR survey found in the 30 Democrat seats considered most at risk, the GOP leads 48% to 39%. This nine-point margin points to Republican winning virtually all 30 seats. In the next tier of most vulnerable Democratic districts, Republicans lead 47% to 45%, meaning the GOP could take many of those 30 seats. By comparison, in the 10 Republican districts thought at risk, Republicans lead 53% to 37%. Republicans should hold virtually all of those.

It will take a net of 10 Senate and 40 House seats for the GOP to win control of the legislative branches. These are big numbers—but they are within reach.

Democrats do have some advantages. Unlike 1994, they wouldn't be caught unprepared. And they've stockpiled money. The Center for Responsive Politics reports the average Democratic Senate candidate has $2.1 million on hand to the average Republican's $1.4 million; in the House, Democrats average $504,000 to Republicans' $239,000.

But cash won't save the Democrats. Complex combinations of factors decide elections, and this year the driving forces are the president's low standing, his mishandling of the economy, his failure to respond to the oil spill, and the interconnected issues of jobs, spending, deficits and ObamaCare.

It is an explosive mix for Democrats. All these measures—from his job approval to handling the economy and the Gulf oil leak to the generic ballot to intensity—will remain roughly where they are unless a dramatic event causes a shift. That's unlikely: The president can do little to radically improve the landscape.

It has taken a year and a half of bad policies to put Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats in their precarious position. As voters hold them accountable for misdeeds, mistakes and misjudgments, Democrats will endure a beating this year they are not likely to forget soon.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, June 23, 2010.

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