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Will Plugging the Gulf Leak Save the Democrat's Ship in November?

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As of early this morning, the oil leak in the Gulf appears to have been plugged and the White House is hoping that the President's political hemorrhaging has been simultaneously cauterized.

Make no mistake, the Gulf oil spill has done considerable political damage to the President. As evidenced by the spate of polls this week, President Obama is in a substantially weakened political condition at a time when Congressional Democrats are facing a potential GOP landslide in November. The oil leak has become a symbol of voter's frustrations with government. The spill crystallized the problem for voters - "Government can't do anything right." Since 9/11 Americans have felt increasingly vulnerable. Katrina, the Great Recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bailouts and health care reform have turbo-charged the public's negative attitude toward government.

But it goes further than anti-big government. The public has begun to question whether the federal government is capable of achieving much of anything. The American public has lost faith in government and, as the Washington Post pointed out this week, by extension the public has lost faith in Obama. It's fairly simplistic, but it goes something like this: If the federal government is incapable of plugging a leak in an oil well, how can it possibly fix our economy and create jobs and do all of the other things that this administration has promised since it took office? While that may be unfair, recent polling data--along with developments like the rise of the Tea Party--has shown that this attitude is taking hold and will be a driving force in the 2010 elections. Our sense is that the jobless rate and poor economy are intensifying a long-building voter frustration with government itself. And right now, the government is Obama and the Democrats.

The following is our up to the minute take on the current political landscape:

  1. Plugging the leak gives Obama a chance to take back the political narrative in this country. The fact is that the President has been playing defense for almost 3 months. Nothing that the Administration has done has dented the information flow in the country. It has been the Gulf oil spill and the economy non-stop, 24/7 for nearly 90 days. Now the President has a chance to regain some measure of control over the narrative--hopefully helped by some good economic news. As we said last week, there is no better time to right this ship than over the summer, ideally before Labor Day. Assuming the cap holds, and the cleanup gets fully underway, the public will slowly turn its attention away from the Gulf and back to the economy.
  2. Yesterday the President said that the loss of jobs keeps him up at night and we have no doubt of the veracity of this. The continuing weakness of the economy is potentially fatal to Democrats in the Fall. Voter perceptions of the economy are in the tank, as are voter attitudes toward the administration's efforts to improve the economy and create jobs. (See this CBS poll for some startling numbers: 97% of Americans say the recession will last at least another year; just 13% say Obama's economic programs have helped them personally; and only 23% think the stimulus made the economy better, down from 36% last year.) As a result, President Obama's approval ratings are at all-time lows and more voters now disapprove than approve of the job he is doing.
  3. The latest polling data suggests that there has been an unprecedented swing in support of congressional Republicans - so strong that it now seems more likely than not that the GOP retakes the House in November. The latest generic congressional ballot numbers show Republicans with as much as an eight-point lead, something we've simply never seen before (Gallup has been asking a generic ballot question since 1954 and the previous high water mark for Republicans was +4 in September of 1994). So the news is pretty terrible for Democrats right now. The good news? It's July. As we said in our previous note, the summer is a period when most voters simply aren't all that engaged in politics or policy. And so Democrats have some time--though it isn't much--for things to turn around. And by "turn around," of course, we're talking about the economy. It was just announced that jobless claims last week were at their lowest point in two years and there is no hint of inflation. Of course, the bigger risk at this point may still be stagnant demand and deflation. But what matters politically is all about perception and momentum. A steady stream of good economic news (even if it doesn't immediately result in new jobs) will help Democrats. But it will have to be significant and consistent enough for this Administration--and Democratic candidates--to be able to say "See! It's working!" That might be simply too tall an order in a three- to four-month period.
  4. The passing of financial regulatory reform-or as the White House and MSNBC prefer to call it "sweeping Wall Street reform," along with the $500,000 fine paid by Goldman Sachs yesterday does send a signal that the President and Democrats are working for the people. To some extent, in the absence of a major economic recession, this might be pretty good politics. The problem is that the populist sentiment of 2008 may have been overridden by the anti-government, anti-spending fervor of 2010. We think the passing of this legislation will ultimately be helpful to Obama in 2012, but is likely to have little or no impact in the Congressional elections this Fall.

If there is one common thread to the national polls this week-other than the problems facing Democrats-is that it appears that President Obama has lost the middle of the electorate. Independents have moved away from the President in droves since January of 2009. Yes, some of that support was artificial and bound to move away but the erosion has been substantial and is the main reason the President's approval rating (in some polls) is now underwater--disapproval above his approval. According to the last 5 public polls, the President's approval rating with Independents ranges an abysmal 34-40%.

We fielded a poll the first week of July with 800 registered voters. Those who identify themselves as Independents are a malleable, heterogeneous bunch, shifting with such things as which party is in power and the general faith in government and other institutions. So we thought it might be interesting to give a snapshot of the Independents who we found in a recent survey.

  • Of the 800 respondents, 41% described themselves as political Independents.
  • Of this 41%, one-quarter are pure Independents (i.e. they don't lean toward either of the two major parties), 39% leaned toward the GOP and 30% leaned toward the Democrats.
  • Slightly more than half (54%) of the Independents are men, while the remaining 46% are women. They are similar in age to Republicans and Democrats.
  • Independents are slightly less likely to vote than their counterparts in the Republican and the Democratic Parties: 36% claim that they have voted in "all" recent elections, compared to 43% of Republicans and 42% of Democrats.
  • In the 2008 election, these Independents favored Barack Obama by seven points (39% to 32% among those who voted (10% declined to answer)). Meanwhile, 85% of Republicans voted for John McCain and 85% of Democrats voted for Barack Obama.
  • Looking ahead to the 2010 elections, Independents favor the Republican House candidate in their district by four points (34% to 30%). By comparison, Republicans say they will be voting for the GOP candidate 88% of the time, while just 75% of Democrats say that they will be voting for their own candidate.
  • From a race perspective, Independents (72%) are more likely to be white than Democrats (57%); Republicans (86%), however, are most likely to be white. Democrats are significantly more likely than either Republicans or Independents to be African American or Hispanic.
  • There are no significant differences among Republicans/Democrats/Independents from an education perspective.
  • Like Democrats (24%), Independents (21%) are more likely to be single than their Republican (11%) counterparts.

Independents will be the key in the coming weeks. For Democrats to stave off the GOP in the mid-terms they will need to have the President's approval rating in the mid to high 40's. To get there, the President will need to win back Independent voters.

Thanks again 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.