The political pendulum has swung far toward the Republicans, and at this point there is almost nothing that Democrats and the president can do to alter the overall course of the midterm elections. Republicans will win the House -- and quite possibly the Senate -- on November 2nd. Democrats had a politically devastating summer that is now stretching into the fall. Politicos talk about campaigns "winning" the day or the week -- well, Democrats have "lost" the last seven months.
Scott Brown's victory on January 19th cemented what Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie started in November of 2009 and signaled the start of this terrible run. A look at the Pew Research Center's polling on the news stories "most closely followed" really tells the story. From February through April the most closely watched news story in the country was health care reform (the economy was in second place). The battle for health care reform represents the first splintering of the Obama coalition, as Independents and swing voters began to move away from Democrats and the president. The issue was divisive and it served to energize the GOP base (and fuel the Tea Party movement), creating the intensity gap that we see today: Republicans are almost twice as energized about the upcoming elections as Democrats. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in August showed that only 43% of Americans had a favorable view of health care reform, while 45% had an unfavorable perspective.
The period from May through July was dominated by the Gulf oil leak story. Political historians may look back at this time as the moment when Democrats lost the midterm election. The oil leak dominated headlines for an incredibly sustained period; it was the dominant news story for nearly three months. From a political perspective it did two things: 1) it signaled to voters that President Obama and the administration were not as competent as previously thought and 2) it took POTUS and the Democrats off-message for 90 days. The White House political apparatus is loath to admit this, but the Gulf oil leak severely damaged the President and his agenda. Every day that the President and Democrats were not talking about the economy was a lost day, and for three months the oil leak ensured that they couldn't address the issue that would be most important to voters in November.
While the oil leak was still the most closely monitored story in America in early August, the capping of the leak changed things instantaneously. In the absence of the leak story, the economy became the most covered and watched story in America in mid- to late-August. According to Pew's latest poll, 43% of Americans said they were "very closely" following stories about the economy (the Iraq troop withdrawal, immigration and Hurricane Earl were other issues being closely observed). Even more importantly, the recent news on the economy has been almost entirely bad. In one of the worst political branding exercises since "Mission Accomplished," the Obama Administration decided to call this the "Recovery Summer." But the economy fizzled and consumer confidence dropped. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 65% of voters say that America is in a state of decline. In September of 2009, 47% of voters thought that during the next 12 months the economy would get better. In the latest poll, only 26% say that.
The following is our up-to-the-minute take on the current political environment:
- Democrats (and the New York Times) are misreading the electorate again if they think they can make John Boehner into a boogeyman for this election. Most voters have no idea who John Boehner is and it is unlikely that he becomes a factor in this election. The man is simply not a lightning rod. This is not 1996 and Boehner is not Gingrich. Speaking of which...
- Newt Gingrich's Obama/Kenya comments are an embarrassment for the GOP and exactly what the party does not need at this time. It suggests again that that if the Republicans retake the house it will be because of massive rejection of Democratic policies rather than an attraction to the GOP.
- Obama's coalition is fractured because Independents have lost faith in the President. In October 2009, the President had a 54% approval rating among Independent voters. Today it stands at 39.2% in Pollster.com's latest average of media polls. That is an astounding 14 point drop in less than a year.
- Ignore polls showing the President's approval rating in the 45-47% range. In reality, Obama's approval rating with the voters who will be counted is much lower. A look at Gallup's latest poll on the President's approval rating suggests that his rating is artificially bolstered by the 18-29 age segment (he has a 61% approval rating among this group). But the President's rating with 30-49 year olds is 44%, it's at 43% among 50-64 year olds, and among those over 65 years of age it is only 38%. We are not discounting young voters, but when you consider those most likely to vote in a mid-term election (18-29 year olds are far less likely to vote in a non-Presidential year), the President's approval rating effectively drops to 41-42%. This is hugely problematic for Democrats.
- There is some good news for Democrats: Obama is finally in campaign mode. The White House is now committed to talking jobs and the economy 24/7. Obama's visit yesterday with families in Fairfax, VA was a smart -- and necessary -- move. The White House had a good week driving its economic message, but the September economic report is its last real chance to make an argument that things are improving, and the report is unlikely to be good enough. Yesterday's front page WSJ story on global uncertainty in the face of a waning economic recovery will further feed voter anxiety.
- The problem for Democrats is that this isn't just about the economy. The election frame is also about the appropriate size and role of government. There has been a real reaction against this administration's expansion of the size of government in addition to a general concern about its ability to do something to "fix" the economy. To understand the momentum in 2010, you only need to look at these two charts from a recent Gallup poll that compares the importance of this election's key issues and which party is more trusted. Other than a virtual tie on health care and corruption, Republicans are now more trusted by the electorate on every key issue. Contrast this with 2006, when Democrats held every advantage, including core Republican issues like terrorism and "moral standards."
- Today is the last major primary day of this cycle and the races in Delaware and New Hampshire are the most closely watched. Despite the latest poll showing O'Donnell with a slight lead over Castle in DE, we believe Castle will prevail. A sizable segment of the GOP electorate thinks that O'Donnell is not fit for office and that number has been trending up in the last few days thanks to some Castle attack ads. If O'Donnell does win, she faces a much tougher slog against Democrat Chris Coons. This would make it very unlikely that the GOP retakes the Senate so this race is one to watch.
Thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their insights and contributions. For real-time reactions to events and more thoughts on the public opinion environment, please follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.