As we enter the summer's home stretch and try to relax by the beach and read a book, the headlines over the weekend were relentless: we had Chelsea Clinton's wedding, the apparent over-use of dispersants by BP in the Gulf, more Wikileaks fallout, Rangel's 13 ethics violations and the Netherlands quitting the war in Afghanistan all interrupting our holiday. But under the radar screen, each political party has been carefully calibrating their Fall strategy to keep or capture Congress. While specific tactics are not yet in place, Republicans and Democrats will spend the rest of August trial-ballooning campaign messages to see what sticks. In a year in which the status quo and politicians in general will be anathema to voters, it remains to be seen how receptive they will be to blatant political messages of any kind. Polling data confirms this, and suggests that voters will be extremely skeptical of what they consider to be typical "political" rhetoric. So let's take a look at each party's current message track.
In a nutshell, the following appear to be the main tenets of the Democratic strategy: first, link the GOP to the Tea Party and second, raise the specter of a return to "Bush economics." The first strategy was on full display with a DNC ad released last Wednesday called "The Republican Tea Party Contract On America." To be sure, there are some elements of the Tea Party platform that are considered extreme by the mainstream electorate (swing voters). The goal with this line of attack is to paint all Republicans as extremists. The problem, as illustrated in the latest Pew survey, is that the electorate as a whole is more conservative than it was five years ago; in fact, Independents are much more closely aligned with the Republican Party than with Democrats. Furthermore, only about half of voters have any significant impression of the Tea Party; 48% of voters haven't heard of it or have no opinion about it either way. Unless the backlash against Tea Party movement becomes substantially stronger than it is today, this strategy will not be very successful.
The second core element of the Democrat's strategy, to link the GOP to Bush, was flagged by David Broder two weeks ago in a piece in which he cited a Benenson Strategy Group (one of Obama's pollsters) polling memo suggesting that when voters hear Bush's name associated with the GOP economic plan they prefer Obama's plan by a good margin. When voters are read the broad outline of each plan, however, they tend to support the Republican proposal to shrink government, spend less and lower taxes. There is no doubt that Bush's brand is still tarnished, but it is still surprising to see the Democrats fall into the trap of waging the 2010 battle like it is still 2008. It might work, but since Bush has been privately living his life out of office for almost two years and probably will not even be doing the Sunday talk show circuit anytime before the elections (even though he is releasing his book), it's a stretch.
While Democrats are busy tying the GOP to "Tea Baggers" and Bush, Republicans will focus on linking Democratic congressional candidates to just one person: Barack Obama. The GOP strategy is pretty simple: remind likely voters that things have only gotten worse in the last 18 months since Obama and the Democrats have been running things and get those who are most upset with the current direction of the country to the polls in November. The GOP wants this election to be a referendum on Obama and Democrats in Congress. They have history on their side. Most off-year elections in a President's first term are a referendum on that President. This is especially true if the President's party is in the majority in Congress. The GOP message is very simple and straightforward: "if you are unhappy with the way things are now, vote for change." This approach, of course, has the benefit of being naturally aligned with the electorate's overall mood of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and its politicians and institutions. If Republicans are successful, this will be the third consecutive "change election"--a first.
Of course there are myriad sub-messages that will be built within each party's political message frame, but for the most part these are likely to be the overarching themes. Time will tell us which is more effective.
Now let's take an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the current political and public opinion landscape:
- The idea that POTUS is over-exposed is flat out wrong. The President's turn on "The View" was a smart PR move and important given that his approval rating with women has dropped 20 points in 12 months (it's hovering just above 50% at last check). Everyone inside the beltway will almost always think that Obama is overexposed, but for the rest of America his level of TV presence probably feels about right. Given the multiplicity of viewing options and news outlets (digital and traditional), it would be awfully hard for any President to be overexposed in this day and age. Having said that, there is something to be said about making sure you have some message discipline. Here, the administration has proven to be inconsistent. We have said for several months now that the President seems hell bent on covering every topic and policy issue out there. This problem is far more real for this administration than the claim that the President is over-exposed.
- While the environmental impact of the Gulf oil spill may turn out to be less than previously feared, its impact on perceptions of government and the President has been enormous. Yes, to some extent it will be "out of sight, out of mind," and the massive use of dispersants while potentially bad for the environment...helps BP and the government because it takes the problem out of view. But for many voters, the image of a slow government reaction to the crisis from the beginning will linger in their minds and continue to hurt the President's ratings. There may be some improvement in the coming weeks in terms of public perceptions of the spill cleanup, but overall the crisis has hurt the Obama brand because it tarnished one of his key attributes (and one of his key differentiators from the previous administration): competence.
- Don't buy the recent Democratic push-back spin that things might turn out alright in November. Things are, in fact, every bit as bad as they seem. Every available polling metric suggests a substantial "wave" election in the GOP's favor. The list is extensive:
- The GOP lead on the generic congressional ballot is about four points (our average of recent public and private polls);
- The President's approval rating is approximately 46% (not quite toxic but low enough to depress Democratic turnout and help put swing districts in the GOP column in November);
- Only 31% of voters believe the country is going in the "right direction";
- Partisan identification is running even or with Republicans slightly ahead in our national polls of registered voters. This almost never happens. Democrats usually have between a 4-8 point lead. In 2008, their lead was 10 points;
- Those most likely to vote this November are far more likely to be Republican than Democrat. Democrats have an intensity issue. Republicans and lean GOP voters are far more interested in the upcoming election than their Democratic counterparts; and,
- Voters are far more likely to say that it is "time to elect someone new" to congress than say that they are leaning toward "re-electing" current congressmen. This anti-incumbency sentiment is at its highest level since 1994.
- The economy may in fact be heading into a double-dip recession and, even more importantly, consumer confidence is shot. Friday's government report on GDP was signaled a major blow to any hope that 2010 would be a turnaround year. The 2.4% GDP growth was weaker than expected, the weakest growth in a year. Additionally, the revised data for 2009 is now saying that it was the weakest annual economic growth for the U.S. since 1946. The economy is by far the number one issue in America today and a majority of voters (52% in the latest CBS News poll) say that Obama has spent "too little time" working on the issue. In the same poll, more than eight in ten believe that Obama's economic programs have either had no effect (63%) or actually hurt them personally (23%). Only 40% approved of the job the President is doing on the economy. Additionally, according to the Conference Board's consumer-confidence index, faith in the economy dropped in June and even further in July. The index is currently at 50.4. Generally consumer confidence is high when the unemployment rate is low (which it is not) and GDP growth is high (which it is not). So, while we have seen some improvement in confidence from its low in 2008, the last two months suggest consumer confidence is in fact dropping again.
- At the time of this writing it is unclear whether Charlie Rangel will cut a deal and save his party from a trial/hearings in November, but if he does not the scandal is sure to be a drag on Democrats in the fall.
- We continue to believe that while the political fallout from the Arizona immigration controversy may have long-term implications on perceptions of the political parties in Presidential cycles, the issue will have little impact in 2010. Immigration is the new "third rail" in politics and both parties could get burned. At this point, however, given the demographic growth of Hispanics, the GOP has the most to lose (literally and figuratively).
While the economy is the dominant issue on the minds of most voters, there several national that could emerge front and center in the coming months. Terrorism and national security are powerful issues that have at least temporarily moved lower on the national agenda but could re-emerge quite quickly. July was the deadliest month in the history of the Afghanistan war. While the military expected this, it does suggest that at some point the country may get "war fatigue" much like they did with Iraq. In other words, we are facing a very crowded, volatile issue agenda--so stay tuned.
Thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their thoughts and insights. Follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.