It has been called the Great Recession, the worst economic downturn in decades. Yet the current economic situation — while an extremely important component of this election — takes a back seat to one man. These mid-term elections are, and always have been, about President Barack Obama. Why would we expect otherwise? In 2008, Obama was the biggest political personality in a generation. His performance in his first two years in office — and, in particular, whether he has been able to meet the lofty expectations — was always going to be the focus of the 2010 midterm elections. The only folks in the country who apparently did not know this were the occupants of the West Wing. Today Republicans will gain control of the House with a net gain of 60 – 70 seats and narrowly take a 51-seat majority in the Senate in an historic political blowout.
First of all, we should make it clear to our readers that while our background is in Republican politics, most of our work these days is for corporations and trade associations (though from time-to-time we do help Republican candidates). However, that has never stopped us from trying to accurately capture the mood of the country for our election monitor readers. In 2006 we very clearly articulated why we thought that Republicans and President Bush had lost the political “narrative” — and a large part of the electorate — and projected a Democratic takeover. In 2008, we were critical of GOP candidate John McCain for both his lackluster campaign and for not adequately addressing the country’s deteriorating economic situation; we simultaneously laid out the fundamental superiority of the Obama campaign’s message and strategy. As our good friend Virginia Hume said recently, we are an “equal opportunity predictor of doom.” The funny part of having to write this is that, from the middle of 2005 until last year, no one had ever questioned our bias because virtually everything we wrote was about how badly the GOP was performing. Things change.
By now we all know the litany of polling data that underlies the election: the president’s low approval rating, voter perceptions that the country is off on the wrong track, low congressional re-elect numbers, the unprecedented Republican advantage on the generic congressional ballot. All of this information is pointing to a GOP “wave.” Here is our up-to-the-minute assessment of the current political environment:
1) Democrats are in this situation mainly because of voter dissatisfaction with President Obama.
This election is a referendum on Obama and his policies. While the economy is an enormous part of this equation (we will get to that next), people — and by that we mean swing voters: independents and “soft” Republicans and Democrats — voted for Obama because they thought he was a “different” kind of politician who would bring about “change.” As it turns out, he’s pretty much a conventional, big government, left-of-center politician. And he’s governed accordingly. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what people thought they were getting. According to the latest NBC/WSJ poll, only 32% of self-identified independents approve of the job Obama is doing, and his job approval among moderates is at 49% (this is lower than in past NBC/WSJ polls). A recent New York Times/CBS poll also makes clear the depth of this disillusionment. Among the voting segments that are currently “disappointed” with the Obama presidency: older voters (63% disappointed), college grads (60%), and those earning $30,000 to $50,000 (57%). Even 52% of voters aged 18-29 are disappointed with Obama.
2) Our sense is that the administration and the president dramatically misread the economic downturn and its effect on the electorate. It is not just that the economy is bad, it is that Obama and his team gave little impression that they were trying to fix it. Look, we know they faced a huge challenge and were trying to cushion the downturn, but the focus on health care reform —combined with the poor reaction to the Gulf oil spill and other ambitious policy initiatives (the stimulus package, cap and trade, etc.) — created a muddled narrative. While the economy is what it is, perception is reality, and by focusing on other things the president looked out of touch and arrogant. At this point, “hope and change” is to Obama what “Mission Accomplished” was to George W. Bush. If you promise “hope and change” — the implication being that things will get better — and things, in fact, get worse, you get punished, and that is what will happen today. The problem for the president is that the economic situation is abysmal and no amount of saying that things are “improving” can change that. A cursory review of the economic situation adds hard data to the opinion research:
- In the last two quarters GDP grew at less than 2%; this represents anemic growth. No growth means no hiring. No hiring? No optimism.
- The national unemployment rate remains at 9.6% (we will get new numbers at the end of the week). Two years of nearly 10% unemployment has created an atmosphere of almost unrelenting pessimism in the country.
- According to the Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment surveys, confidence has declined this year when compared to last year. People are less confident in the economy than when Obama was elected.