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.
As to the election, here are some quick observations on some of the punditry and spin:
- Democratic talk of a good “ground game” is the surest sign that they’re expecting huge losses.
- Why the House will go but the Senate might not: in an election that’s been nationalized, it’s much easier for people to decide to vote against their congressmen (who are oftentimes nameless/faceless), which is why there’s a significant possibility that the House will flip and the Senate won’t.
- Take a drink if someone else says that these elections are “all about turnout.” But it’s true. More accurately, it is about “which voters” turn out. Some analysts are using voter turnout models based on 2006 and 2008 (not great years for Republicans), while others have more abstract models showing much higher GOP turnout. And while we all expect a substantially more Republican turnout this year based on the available evidence, we simply don’t know for sure.
- We agree with GOP pollster Bill McInturff: the GOP will have an extremely short leash. Everyone who thinks that the Tea Party is just going to fall in love with Republicans once they take office is, to put it mildly, nuts. If Republicans don’t cut spending and do a lot of the other things that Tea Partiers have clamored for, the Tea Party will go after Republicans in 2012 and beyond. Remember, it was basically the Tea Party — though it didn’t have a name yet — that took out the GOP in 2006.
- To the above point, Obama will have an easier time of things if the GOP takes over one or both houses of Congress because he’ll finally have something tangible to run against. So the real story over the next year (or two) will be which party better articulates its vision for the future. Will the GOP be able to make significant cuts to spending without suffering a backlash (and certainly Obama and the Democrats will have a field day saying: “The GOP is cutting your X!” and “The GOP is taking away your Y!”)? Republicans need to learn from the mistakes they made after taking control in 1994 (i.e. the government shut down and fixation on investigations). They would be wise to look to Chris Christie in New Jersey as a template for how to cut spending and, even more importantly, communicate with voters about the hard choices ahead.
Key Senate Race Projections
Colorado is tough to peg. This is a state Obama won with 54% of the vote (Bush took the state in 2004 with 52%). It was supposedly part of the “new Democratic coalition.” Well, that didn’t last long. Colorado is a swing state and this year it is swinging Republican.
Michael Bennet was appointed to the Senate by Governor Bill Ritter after President Obama selected Ken Salazar to be Secretary of the Interior. Bennet, who survived a primary challenge, has never run a competitive statewide race (he was formerly the Denver Public Schools Superintendent). Buck, a candidate with strong support from the Tea Party, was up big for a while but this one has tightened, with the two latest polls showing a dead heat. Our sense is that GOP enthusiasm — combined with a lackluster Democratic candidate — will give Ken Buck a victory in Colorado. LCG Projection: GOP Pick-Up.
Illinois really brings into focus the problem facing Obama. This is his home state, one he captured with 62% of the vote. Even John Kerry got 55% of the vote in 2004. It is rock solid blue and tonight it will replace Obama’s designated successor with a Republican.
This race has tightened considerably in recent weeks. Once thought to be an easy GOP pick-up, controversy over Republican Mark Kirk’s exaggerations of his military record allowed Democrat Alexi Giannoulias to claw his way back into the race. Giannoulias, though, has his own problems, most notably the collapse of his family’s bank. Most of the latest polling shows Kirk up by two-three points; our expectation is that he will hold on to win. LCG Projection: GOP Pick-Up.
Nevada is one of several Bush states that Obama flipped in 2008. Bush, though, carried the state with just 51%.
As you (and everyone else in America) know, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle is locked in a tight race with current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. For obvious reasons, this race has attracted a great deal of national attention — not to mention money — as Reid fights for his political life. Reid has had tough races before, most notably in 1998, when he defeated John Ensign by just 428 votes. Reid has never been a great candidate and his performance on the campaign trail and in his debates this year has been pretty dreadful. Like many other close races, we expect GOP enthusiasm to push Angle, herself a flawed candidate, to victory. LCG Projection: GOP Pick-Up.
Wisconsin. When the first few polls were conducted for this race, Russ Feingold’s numbers were in the low 40s. For an incumbent, that’s toxic. This must have been especially worrisome for Feingold, who looked surprisingly vulnerable in his previous re-election campaigns: he won with 50.5% of the vote in 1998 and 55% in 2004 despite significantly outspending his challenger that year. The outlook hasn’t gotten any better for Wisconsin’s three-term Senator over the past year; his numbers have stayed in the low 40s for virtually the entire race. This is an easy one to call. LCG Projection: GOP Pick-Up.
Pennsylvania. For most of this year this one looked like an easy GOP pick-up, even though Toomey is, by Pennsylvania standards, a very conservative candidate. But in the past few weeks Sestak has pulled even with — and, in a few polls, ahead of — his counterpart, though several recent polls show Toomey re-establishing his lead. The Toomey campaign has done an effective job of tying Sestak to the Obama administration’s spending. And this election is likely to see a decline in the urban vote and a swing back to the Republican for blue-collar white voters (Toomey currently leads 52%-39% among independent likely voters). This environment should be enough to give Toomey a win. LCG Projection: GOP Pick-Up.
Kentucky. This is one of those races that we’ll look back on in a few years and laugh about. Aqua Buddha? Anyway, this one has always been Tea Party darling Paul’s to lose, and there was a stretch there where it looked as though he might do just that (having to clarify and confirm your support for the Civil Rights Act is never a good thing). While polls tightened for a bit in the weeks following Paul’s nomination, the most recent surveys have him reestablishing a fairly large lead. Even though Mitch McConnell had a relatively tough race in 2008 (and Bunning won by less than 25,000 votes in 2004), look for Paul to hold on and win this one. LCG Projection: GOP Hold.
Washington. There are “toss-ups” and there are toss-ups: this one is a true toss-up, and the frequent visits from heavy-hitters in both parties — along with the spate of independent expenditure ads — reinforce this point. Recently, though, Murray has held on to a small but consistent lead in most polls. But there’s also the state’s unique primary system that has all candidates (from both parties) on the same ballot; this year Republicans edged out Democrats. And Murray’s campaign has been outspent. Our sense is that Rossi has been a solid candidate and the GOP tide will take him over the top. LCG Projection: GOP Pick-Up.
Florida. It seems like we’ve been talking about this one forever. Anyway, for a while Charlie Crist was leading in the polls but since late August it’s been all Marco Rubio. Recently, the chatter was that Meek would drop-out and endorse Crist, an interesting bit of calculus. But there never seemed to be enough time to make that pivot and the rumored instigator of that strategy, none other than Bill Clinton, was campaigning for Meek over the weekend. Rubio is up big now — he’s been above 40% for some time — and has this race pretty much locked up. LCG Projection: GOP Hold.
West Virginia is the biggest Senate race in the country. This one will be a true test of the GOP “wave.” Manchin is an extraordinarily popular governor, with both job approval and personal favorability numbers of around 70%. But President Obama is deeply unpopular in the state. While there had been a dearth of polling on this race, two polls over the weekend showed the Governor at 51% and 50% among likely voters, perhaps on the strength of a recent series of ads making the closing argument that Raese is too far outside the mainstream. Despite the national environment, we think this and, more importantly, Manchin’s own popularity and record as governor — will make this seat a very narrow Democratic hold. No Democratic Senate candidate has run further away from Obama than Manchin and it should pay off. But watch this one closely: if Manchin loses (and we might know the results of this one early) it means that voter anger at the Obama administration and its policies has overwhelmed a candidate whose policies are closer to the center and who is unequivocally well-liked by voters. LCG Projection: Dem Hold.
California. A caveat here: we have done some work for the Fiorina campaign. Most polls show Boxer at or around 50%. We are going with our heart predicting that the “wave” will carry Fiorina to a narrow victory. LCG Projection: GOP pick-up.
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.