Election Monitor: Looking ahead to November, here’s how issues are shifting to affect the fall elections

Steve Lombardo Contributor
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It is our hope that this statement will be met with a bit of thankfulness: We are not going to predict the number of seats the Democrats will lose in November, nor are we going to give you the magical formula for making that prediction. We can’t because there isn’t one. What we can say is that voters are angry and that is usually a bad sign for the party in power.

Before we examine the political situation, here’s a quick snapshot of the opinion landscape as of 6 a.m. on Monday, May 3:

  1. If anyone needed more evidence that the environment issue is shifting rapidly, the last 24 hours has provided it. We have seen the Gulf oil spill move from a serious issue to a potentially catastrophic event. On Saturday night, Times Square was evacuated in the face of a failed car bomb attempt. On Sunday, Secretary Napolitano said it was a “potential terrorist attack” and would be treated very, very seriously. The implications are clear for 2010: Just when you think you have a good handle on the issue environment, you probably dont.
    1. The gulf oil spill is a potential game changer for this president and the White House knows it. That is why Obama traveled to the region on Sunday. The administration is vulnerable to charges that they underplayed the seriousness of this issue in the first few days. The situation was nearly a week old before they began treating it as a crisis. The Katrina comparison has been overplayed but the implication is clear: move quickly to exert leadership or the perceived lack of action will drive blame.
    2. In 1979 the accident at Three Mile Island stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants for 30 years. The question now is whether the Gulf leak will do the same with respect to offshore oil drilling. Here the White House has a problem since Obama came out in support of drilling in the state of the union. Yet another hot-button issue for Obama.
    3. At this point, the implications of the Times Square car bomb scare are unclear. But if it is connected to an international terror group, all bets are off as to its impact on the national issue agenda. Two weeks ago, autumn’s elections were going to be all about health-care reform and the economy (oddly, GOP issues), last week it was about immigration and Wall Street reform (Democrat issues) and now the environment, drilling and terrorism are front and center. As we have seen before, if terrorism rises as a national issue, the president will receive at least short-term political benefit.

As for the November elections, here is what we know. Let’s start with the good news for Republicans:

  • We are in one of the longest sustained periods of voter dissatisfaction in modern history. Except for a few weeks in the spring of 2009, perceptions of the direction of the country have been strongly “wrong track” since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  That is seven years. The only comparable period is 1973-1983. This helps explain why we are in the middle of a third successive “change” election. Moreover, trust in government to do what is right is at an all-time low. In a Pew Research Center poll last month, less than one-fifth (22 percent) of respondents said they could trust government most of the time. This is one of the lowest percentages in more than 50 years.
  • Republicans are dominating the generic congressional ballot. To start, as Jay Cost observed from a regression analysis back in 2006, the final Gallup poll generic ballot explains about 89 percent of the variation in the final House results on Election Day. We agree that the generic ballot is a great predictor of the House vote, but we also want to remind readers that Democrats have been “underperforming” on Election Day relative to the generic ballot. Over the past decade, Democrats have consistently led Republicans in both the national House ballot and national party identification questions, even in cycles where they haven’t gained control of the chamber, like 2000 and 2004. So when the generic ballot shows Democrats to be tied with Republicans or even down by a couple points, this is pretty much unprecedented territory.
  • Voter enthusiasm is decidedly with Republicans. The latest Gallup poll on voter enthusiasm was a big blow for Democrats.  Among voters who are “very enthusiastic” about the upcoming mid-term elections, the GOP was ahead by 20 points (57 percent to 37 percent) on the generic congressional ballot.
  • The party identification gap has narrowed 10 points in 18 months as the GOP and Democrats are now near parity among registered voters. This is hugely problematic for Democrats. Historically, Democrats have a 5 to 10 point edge in party ID among registered. They often retain this edge even during GOP up-cycles. Like the generic ballot, we are in uncharted territory.
  • Of course, individual races do matter. But this, too, has looked ominous for Democrats. As Sean Trende notes, “Every Democratic Senate candidate, except five from very blue states [Pat Leahy, Vermont; Chuck Schumer, New York; Barbara Mikulski, Maryland; Dan Inouye, Hawaii, and Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut], has had at least one poll test placing him or her below 50 percent this cycle. Similarly … [House] Democrats in [blue] districts who normally receive around 60 percent of the vote are below 50 percent as well.”
  • Basically, there are too many Democrats sitting in GOP-leaning districts. Howard Dean’s efforts as DNC chairman to “redraw the map” by contesting previously safe Republican districts have put an unusual number of freshman and sophomore Democrats in peril. While the project certainly bore fruit in 2008 and vindicated Dean’s strategy, there are now many more seats that will be difficult to defend. Take Virginia’s 5th District: In 2008, Tom Perriello defeated six-term incumbent Virgil Goode by fewer than 800 votes as part of an unprecedented success for Democrats in Virginia (this was driven by a turnout surge of new Obama voters). However, the district has a Cook PVI of R+5, meaning that historically it has leaned toward Republicans, and in the only public poll, his approval rating is 42 percent approve/ 46 percent disapprove. Perhaps most troubling for Perriello, who voted “yea” on health care: 52 percent of his district’s voters are against the bill and 50 percent disapprove of Obama.

On the other hand, there is some good news for Democrats (though not nearly as much):

  • The current issue frame is decidedly negative for Republican candidates. So long as the dialogue in Washington is focused on financial regulation and immigration reform, Republicans will be on the defensive. Add to that a potential terrorist attack and things are aligned for the president to demonstrate leadership. Ultimately, this may only be a short-term situation but, for the time being, the Democrats will benefit.
  • The economy is slowly improving. The economy grew by 3.2 percent during the first quarter of 2010. That makes three straight positive-growth quarters. This pretty much signals that the recession ended in the spring of 2009. However, voter perception has not caught up with reality and until there is meaningful job growth the economy will continue to be a huge problem for Democrats.
  • The WH and the Democrats had an early warning bell this year unlike 1994 and they are mounting a counterattack. Just because they have been alerted to the approaching iceberg doesn’t mean the current won’t steer the Democrats right into it anyway, but the DNC’s new campaign shows that they are not going to go down without a fight.  Obama’s trip to the mid-west this week was a step in the right direction in terms of addressing voter frustrations. We remain skeptical that new voter enlistment efforts will work in a non-presidential year but it is worth a try.
  • Obamas approval rating is moribund but not toxic (yet). The president’s approval rating is somewhere around 48 percent, depending on whose tally you are looking at. His disapproval is around 47 to 48 percent. If his approval gets back to or above 50 percent it will be a big help to Democrats in the fall.

There are two landmines that Republicans will need to navigate in the months ahead.

  • First is the anti-incumbent sentiment that has gripped this electorate. Again, this helps Republicans from a big picture perspective because Democrats are in power, but it also suggests that voters aren’t happy with either party, setting up a situation where it won’t be enough for Republicans to be merely “not Democrats.” And, to be honest, it is probably a good thing for both the country and Republicans themselves that they will be forced to articulate an alternative vision and set of policies. Of course, history shows that anti-incumbent sentiments do tend to help the opposition party, as this chart demonstrates:

  • The second landmine is the Tea Party movement. There has been some interesting research done on the Tea Party movement (see the Winston Groups polling as well as TargetPoints recent exit poll from a rally), but, to a large extent, we’re still guessing as to the true identity of this group, especially with respect to its voting behavior (because it’s never really voted as a “party” before). This is, after all, a group of people with a disparate collection of ideologies and philosophies, though most seem to be disaffected conservatives. So while most of them have probably never voted for a Democrat, they are clearly not just GOP base voters (and they aren’t just former Perot voters, either). They are, in fact, a new, different subset of the electorate, and our sense is that the Tea Party label represents an option for people to either vote for write-ins or stay home. If either of those options occurs on a large scale, Republican gains will fall far short of historic.

Steve Lombardo is President & CEO of Lombardo Consulting Group, a public opinion research firm that advises corporations and industry associations and is based in Washington, D.C. He served as a strategy and communications advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008.