For the past few weeks, the White House has been trying to make the argument that the country’s angry electorate is almost entirely mad about a) the economy and b) the administration’s poor performance in “marketing” (the president’s words) its agenda. This isn’t new: just about every underperforming administration — and this includes Republican administrations — blames voter disapproval on an inability to “sell” its agenda. They’re wrong almost every time. The president and his party are in trouble because voters have examined their legislative record and have, for the most part, rejected it. President Obama’s policies are an albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party and, as a result, Congressional Democrats will probably suffer a historic defeat on November 2nd.
As we said last week, midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the president’s performance in office. This is especially true when the party in power in Congress is aligned with the president — as it is now. Yes, the economy is in extremely poor shape and this has created an overwhelmingly negative environment for Democrats, but many voters think that George W. Bush shares a large part of the blame for that. And to some extent, voters feel that Obama said he was going to fix things….and he hasn’t. But something else is driving voter anger. Let’s take a look at how voters rate the president’s performance on key issues to help get a sense of what factors are driving the current environment:
- The president’s overall approval rating in toss-up congressional districts is toxic. Quite simply, he is killing Democrats in these districts. A bi-partisan NPR poll released this week has the president’s approval rating in “toss-up” congressional districts at 41%. His disapproval was a stunningly high 55%. And don’t be fooled by polls showing the president’s national approval rating at 45%. Not only is that bolstered by strongly pro-Democratic regions (like the Northeast and Northwest) but it is also inflated by young voters. If you remove that age cohort, the president’s approval rating is in the 38-40% range. Young people are far less likely to vote in midterm elections. That is why the President did the MTV event: to bolster youth turnout.
- Voter perception of Obama’s handling of key issues is abysmal. A recent Newsweek poll showed that 56% disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy and 58% disapprove of his handling of the federal budget deficit. His approval rating on health care (43% approve), taxes (39% approve), and the situation in Afghanistan (42% approve) are all at or below his approval rating. This is why the White House is talking about undisclosed financing in elections but there is simply no issue terrain from which they can successfully wage this battle.
- There is also a substantial level of disapproval of many of the policies advanced by this White House. Look no further than a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showing that only 47% of voters support the health care reform legislation (48% oppose it). This is just seven months after its passage and follows months of campaigning (marketing) from the president. And make no mistake: opposition to health care reform is much higher among likely voters. Private campaign polls that we have seen in four key swing states show opposition to the health care reform law among likely voters at 57%-65%. In these states, the new health care law is nuclear material. Additionally, a USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that there was strong voter disapproval to government aid to U.S. automakers (56% disapprove) and banks (61%). In the ABC News poll, voters were asked whether they thought that the money the federal government has spent on the economic stimulus has been mostly well spent or mostly wasted. Nearly 7 in 10 (68%) said “wasted.” This is what is fueling the fire.
- Obama lost political independents in the summer of 2009 with his health care push and they NEVER came back. In June of 2009, the president’s approval rating with independents was 60%. It dropped into the high 40s in the fall of that year and is currently at 39%. Among likely independent voters it is in the mid 30s. The White House lost the middle of the electorate; that was when the bottom fell out.
- Republican interest in this election continues to be substantially higher than Democrat interest. One measure of this that hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention is the raw numbers of primary voters. According to an analysis by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, Republican turnout in primaries through August has exceeded Democratic turnout by four million voters (17,182,893 to 12,963,925). While some of that can be explained away by more hotly-contested races on the GOP side, most of it can’t. Simply put, Republicans are more engaged and more likely to vote on November 2nd because they are opposed to the president’s agenda.
After two weeks touting the “Democratic comeback,” the media is now saying that Republicans are in the driver’s seat and that the fundamentals of this election have been “set in stone” for months. If we had a hundred-dollar bill for every time we heard a pundit say “the die is cast” we’d be rich. To some extent the cliché is true; since the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts, all indicators have pointed toward a sizable GOP pickup. We think it is a mistake, though, to describe this election as some sort of static event. This tide has been rising since the Chris Christie (NJ) and Bob McDonnell (VA) victories and it hasn’t abated. Every time you think you have a fix on this election it moves just a bit. I remember watching Scott Brown’s poll numbers in the weeks — and then days — leading up to his election thinking “well that has to be his high water mark.” But the numbers kept on improving and his victory became a rout in one of the bluest states in the nation. With two weeks remaining we see nothing on the horizon to slow a GOP landslide that is still, from our perspective, growing.
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.