The race is on. No, I'm not referring to the one between Republicans and Democrats; instead, I'm talking about the race between pollsters and media organizations to project this November's GOP margin of victory. There have been some pretty smart analyses produced over the last several weeks, including ones by Cook, Rothenberg, RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight and, most recently, the vaunted NBC political unit with its Voter Confidence Index. However, in the quest to compare this year to other "wave" elections (see 1994, 1982 and 1974) they may have all missed the most important phenomenon of all: the growth rate of this potential electoral hurricane. We have all been so concerned about looking at this as some fixed point in time -- by, for example, trying to compare this year to elections that took place 30 and 40 years ago -- that we have forgotten to look back just 90 days ago. When one does, the only conclusion that you can have is the following: we are seeing an intensifying political storm that for Democrats is the electoral equivalent of a catastrophic hurricane.
First, here's a quick primer on hurricanes. According to climatologists, hurricanes can release an amount of energy in one day equal to all of the electricity generated across the globe in 200 days. Hurricanes also keep building as long as they keep getting energy from warm water. Hurricanes strengthen via the temperature of the water: the hotter the water, the more strength it gains. But if a hurricane moves over land or colder water, it starts to fizzle out. Just like climatological hurricanes, an electoral hurricane is fed by an energy source. In politics this energy source is usually voter anger and frustration with the status quo. The Tea Party movement is one byproduct of this energy (to further this analogy, wind and rain are by-products of regular hurricanes). So the question is will this political hurricane continue to feed off the warm water of voter anger, or will those waters cool a bit as we get closer to shore (Election Day)? To judge, let's look at how this storm has intensified over the last 200 days.
We examined five key measures of voter anger: the percentage of voters who say the country is on the "wrong track," the President's disapproval rating, Congressional disapproval rating, the Generic Congressional ballot share for the party out of power (GOP) and the Party ID for the out-of-power party (GOP). All of these are negative measures for Democrats; that is, the higher the number the worse for the Democratic Party. (All data is from Pollster.com monthly averages for registered voters.) We then simply calculated the sum of these negative measures, which we will call -- trumpets please -- the LCG Voter Anger Index.
As you will note from the table below, the Voter Anger Index score in February of this year was 246. In May it rose to 250 and in August it stood at 259. In the last 90 days it has risen 9 points. The lesson here is not just that anger is high, it is that it is increasing with each passing day/week/month. The water temperature is not cooling; instead, it is getting warmer and feeding the storm. If it increases another 20 points by Election Day, the result would be catastrophic for the Democratic Party. We are talking about a 50 to 60 seat loss in the House and loss of the Senate.
When we look at this from a historical perspective, we see that the anger level in February was already equal to 1994. In August of this year the Voter Anger Index was a full 14 points (or 6%) higher than it was in November of 1994. It is also important to note that this index is based on registered voters. Our assumption is that voter anger is even higher among likely voters and the measures we've seen -- like the generic ballot -- do suggest that.
Hurricanes are named. We all remember Katrina. For really destructive storms, the World Meteorological Organization sometimes takes names off the list. People don't want to see the name again. Democrats might soon want to have this year's election removed from the history books as well.
Current Political Environment
There is no doubt that the White House is now fully engaged in the mid-term elections. The question will be whether this is too little, too late. Real world events have a way of either complementing or distorting/diminishing the President's message as his party tries to hold Congress. We are getting some key month's end economic data this week and it will impact voter attitudes. Here are some observations on the current political milieu:
1. The "pledge" is a winner for the GOP if it does no harm. The pledge is important for Republicans because of the signal it sends to voters, not because of any specific policy agenda item. If voters have a neutral to slightly positive impression of the pledge it will have done its job. The goal of the pledge was to help clarify the GOP brand and toward that end we think it generally works. On the other hand, don't expect any big boost for Republican candidates as a result of the unveiling.
2. The focus on Christine O'Donnell's controversial comments may doom her candidacy in DE but have little effect on the GOP as a whole. This is all about her personally and there will be little residual impact on Republicans elsewhere or the Tea Party.
3. There has been a substantive drop in Obama's approval rating that is reflected in perceptions of his ability to handle issues. The recent Politico/GWU/Battleground poll asked who voters thought would be better in handling certain issues: Obama or Republicans in Congress. On turning around the economy, 49% chose The GOP (and only 41% Obama) and on creating jobs, 51% picked Republicans in Congress while only 40% chose Obama.
4. The economy remains the number one issue but likely voters are being driven by two secondary but potent issues: 1) perceptions that the stimulus (and TARP) was a government handout and a failure and 2) that the healthcare reform law was an example of too much government intrusion and over-reach. While some in Washington still find it difficult to believe, anger over the deficit and spending in general is what is driving the likely midterm voter and it is a powerful and emotional issue.
5. On the economy, the political problem continues to be one of unmet expectations. People expected things to get better more quickly than they have. The country lost 7.6 million jobs since the start of the recession in December of 2007, but we have only recently begun adding jobs over the last few months (and at an awfully slow rate). It will likely take years to add back those jobs. Similarly, household net worth has recovered only four percentage points of the 21% lost according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The problem was that people expected things to get better much, much faster. That has hurt Obama and Democrats as much as anything.
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.