Something was clearly in the water this week at the local chapter of the Society of Campaign Pundits.
Within 48 hours of each other, two of the more well-read voices of all things electoral, Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Report/Roll Call and Reid Wilson of the Washington Post, penned cautionary tales for the Democrats and their electoral fortunes in the upcoming midterm elections.
The common theme: 2014 could look a lot like 2010.
Driven by the recent ebb in the poll numbers for both President Obama in particular and the Democrats in general, both commentators seem to converge on the idea that Democratic control of the Senate is very much endangered.
By no means is continued Democratic control of the U.S. Senate a guarantee after the 2014 elections. That having been said, it seems, quite frankly, a little bit silly to sound the alarms after one or two weeks of polls. What's more: Comparisons to 2010 ignore some very basic realities that either are unlikely to exist, or simply will not exist, in 2014.
Follow me past the jump for the explanation.
Before the counterargument is made, let's examine the core points of the argument made by Gonzales and Wilson:
1. The president's job approval ratings are comparable to 2010, and there is little prospect for improvement.
In 2010, President Barack Obama’s job performance ratings were 44 percent approve/55 percent disapprove, according to the national exit poll. Today, the president’s job rating stands at 41 percent approve/55 percent disapprove, according to the Real Clear Politics average.Wilson:
And there’s no sign that Obama will become more popular. Presidents who see their approval ratings dip so dramatically in the second term rarely see their numbers improve. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s approval ratings never recovered after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal (Nixon, of course, didn’t stick around to see just how far his ratings could fall). George W. Bush’s approval rating sank in the spring of 2005, and continued falling through the end of his term. Obama’s numbers are starting to resemble Bush’s trend lines.Obama's numbers are actually a touch worse now in the RCP average (40/55), but only a month ago, that spread was half of what it is today (all the polls for October combined yielded a job approval spread of 44/51). Neither of those, for what it's worth, is anything to pin on the refrigerator.
However, something that must be addressed is the poll numbers for the party whose potential ascendancy is being forecast. The RCP average for Congress right now? It stands at 9 percent approval and 85 percent disapproval. Recent polling by CBS and Fox put the job approval numbers for the Republicans in Congress at the same catastrophic locale: 21 percent approval, 73 percent disapproval. Quinnipiac's November poll was nearly identical (20/73).
Now, Democratic numbers aren't anything short of awful, either. But they are markedly better than those of the GOP. The average of those same three polls for the Democrats stood at 28/65. A negative-37 spread flat out sucks, to be sure, but it is still better than the negative-53 spread the Republicans are currently rocking.
In 2010, for what it is worth (and as hard as it might be to believe) voters actually had a more positive assessment of the Democrats than they did of the GOP. But the spread was far more marginal (44/52 for the Democrats, versus 41/53 for the GOP).
What's more, and this is another factor that seems to be ignored in this new wave of "Democrats are Doomed" chatter: In 2010, the Republicans were the automatic beneficiaries of being the out party in government. Therefore, any dissatisfaction with the mood of the country was going to be laid at the feet of the Democrats, even if voters were skeptical about the GOP as an alternative. Consider: In 2010, 61 percent of voters thought the country was on the wrong track. The Republicans carried these voters by a stunning 76-percent to 22-percent margin.
It is nearly impossible to conceive, with the Republicans indisputably responsible for what ails Washington (though the public can debate about the degree to which they are responsible), that the GOP would enjoy a similar sweep of the "wrong track" voters in 2014. Wilson lays the ability of the GOP to gain a House majority in 2010, despite weaker approval numbers, on their ability to nationalize the election as a referendum against Obama. But it was deeper than that: It was driven by anger about government. In 2014, anger at government might be even broader than it was in 2010. The key difference? Republicans own a piece of that discontent now in a way that they simply did not in 2010.
2. The Democratic albatross for 2014 is liable to be Obamacare.
Reaction to the bungled rollout of the health care law is overwhelmingly to blame. Already, the fallout has been evident: Public surveys in Virginia showed Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) leading Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) by wide margins in the wake of the government shutdown. But Cuccinelli made the final weeks of the race into a referendum on ObamaCare, and McAuliffe’s support began to erode. On Election Day, McAuliffe won by just 2.5 points, a narrower margin than even his internal polls showed. Another week, and Cuccinelli might be governor-elect.To his credit, Gonzales doesn't "go there," but this has been a dominant theme of the pundit chatter about 2014, and it has been the primary theme of Republican spinners, to boot.
Leaving alone the very debatable point about Obamacare being a drag on Terry McAuliffe (the much more plausible explanation for the poll disparity was the presence of a major third-party challenger, which would explain why both the Democratic victories in the lieutenant governor and attorney general races came at almost precisely the polling averages), there are two problems with the "Obamacare will make it 2010 all over again" analysis.
For one thing, it is based on a very shaky assumption. The early hiccups with the website, and the torrent of negative publicity, have clearly been a catalyst in the dip of polling numbers for the ACA, and for President Obama, in general. For that to be a significant factor in 2014, one would have to assume that either (a) opinions on the health care reform are baked in, and unchanging or (b) the array of maladies that afflicted the program rollout will continue unabated through next November. While both are in the realm of possibility, neither of those outcomes seem all that likely. In other words, it is certainly plausible that what we are seeing now is the nadir of public opinion on Obamacare, and that the program will be more popular a year from now than it is today.
The second point: An argument can be made that even in its present circumstance, Obamacare is more popular now than it was in the 2010 midterms. By one measurement, the numbers support this argument. A recent CNN poll showed that 54 percent of voters either supported Obamacare (40 percent) or thought it should've been expanded/made "more liberal" (14 percent). Only 41 percent thought it went "too far." In the 2010 exit polls (though the question was framed slightly differently), more Americans wanted to see Obamacare scrapped (48 percent) than wanted it expanded (31 percent) or kept as-is (16 percent).
3. The Senate landscape is one that is not amenable to Democrats
...as I’ve written before, Republicans only need to win states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012 to get back to the Senate majority. The GOP won’t likely need victories in Michigan, Iowa, Colorado or New Hampshire. Those would just be icing on the cake.Wilson:
The stakes are highest for Democratic senators seeking re-election in red states, where the Affordable Care Act is even more widely despised than it is nationally. Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Alaska will face added headwinds unless the political climate changes.Leaving aside another "whoa" disputable point by Wilson (Obamacare is despised, even though more people either approve of it, or want it expanded, than want it scrapped?!): on this score, at least, it is hard to disagree with Gonzales and Wilson, if we confine our discussion to the landscape of the Senate battlegrounds heading into 2014.
And there aren’t many opportunities for Democrats to change that climate.
Even our own Daily Kos Elections ratings on the 2014 U.S. Senate races identify a total of 13 potentially competitive Democratic-held U.S. Senate seats, versus just 3 potentially competitive GOP-held U.S. Senate seats. And a lot of those competitive 2014 Democratic seats lie in territory that is colored in a variety of shades of red.
However, in spite of all that, there is an elephant in the room, literally. We cannot overlook, nor can we underestimate, the propensity for Republican primary voters to obliterate electable candidates and salvage for the Democrats what would otherwise be eminently attractive Republican targets. Just ask Senator Joe Donnelly. Or Senator Chris Coons. Or Senator Michael Bennet. Or...well, you get the idea.
On a more basic level is something that (again, to his credit) Gonzales acknowledges to a far greater extent than did Wilson: It is highly premature to call any shots with nearly 350 days to go in the cycle:
Readers beware, this is not a projection. It’s too early for that. But Democrats ought not simply dismiss out of hand that 2014 could be another bad year — even a very bad year — for their party.Gonzales is right, and it is why the early 2010 comparisons seem more than a trifle overdone. Heck, even Gonzales' boss (Stu Rothenberg) penned a "the GOP may well be in deep trouble" article as recently as six weeks ago. There are a raft of "game changers" (and, ugh, do I hate that term) just waiting out there, including a whole other round of budget fights.
And, if past is prologue, one cannot underestimate the capacity for Republicans to mess the bed when it comes to budgetary fights.
Could 2014 materialize into a Democratic nightmare? Of course, it can. Where I remain unconvinced is that Democratic prospects are dramatically worse now than they were a month ago. The anger over the shutdown gave many Democrats an artificially rosy forecast of their political futures (look at mid-October polls, and how historically awful they were for the GOP).
A month of horrifically bad headlines relating to Obamacare has now created a similar vector for Democratic poll numbers. Yet if voter discontent over the shutdown was not a permanent black mark on the Republicans in Congress, it is a little hard to understand why the recent discontent over the A.C.A. is infinitely more indelible in the minds of voters. Unless the bad news about Obamacare is unceasing for the next 11 months, it would seem to require some explanation as to why one poll catalyst is transient, and the other is not.
There will be many more ebbs and flows to the 2014 campaign cycle yet to come. While both Gonzales and Wilson are among the real bright lights in campaign analysis, I'm not sold that they aren't being more than a little premature in their assessments here.