Republicans’ Sudden Generic Ballot Surge

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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Republicans have suddenly broken out on the congressional generic ballot question. There are two main reasons for Republicans’ new advantage. First, the election is just over a month away and voters are now focusing on it. More importantly, what voters are focusing on is all bad for the Democrats.

As Christmas is for retailers, politics is for politicians – the world revolves around holiday sales for the former and elections for the latter. For everyone else, the world does not revolve around either. They wait for the season to summon them. So in politics, this means salient issues continually rise and fall – headlines today are forgotten tomorrow – seemingly diminishing their ultimate impact.

However as the election nears, voters begin to sift back through those headlines; like holiday shoppers making their shopping lists. They are aided in this by the parties – like retailers advertising their sales – each vying to remind us of what they think we should know.

For Christmas, the shopping season traditionally begins after Thanksgiving – for elections, after Labor Day – each building to a crescendo. Now just over 40 days away from November’s first Tuesday, we are seeing the early results of the political shopping season’s combination of increased attention and reminders. Right now, all are to the Democrats’ detriment.

Despite Obama accumulating a scrapbook of bad press, for most of this year Democrats have held a slim lead on the question as to which party voters would prefer to see control Congress.

The New York Times/CBS News September poll (taken 9/12-15 of 1,009 respondents, 854 registered voters) shows Democrats’ steep and sudden plunge on this question. As late as August, Democrats held a four percent advantage over Republicans with registered voters on the generic ballot question – 41 percent to 37 percent.  In this latest poll, Republicans now hold a 47 to 42 percent advantage among registered voters, and a 49 to 42 percent lead among probable voters.

Reasons for this sudden surge are easy to find. Obama’s overall job approval rating is negative, 40 to 50 percent, with the 40 percent matching his low for the year.

Even more striking is the breadth of disapproval. On virtually every issue, Obama is severely underwater with the public.

On his handling of foreign policy, Obama achieved the lowest NYT/CBS News results of his presidency – a 34 percent approval rating versus a 58 percent disapproval rating. His results for handling terrorism were similar – his presidency’s lowest with 41 percent approval rating and 50 percent disapproval.

On handling of the economy, Obama had a 40 to 53 percent negative rating – also very close to his year’s low approval rating, despite a recent (and much-touted by the administration) strong quarter of economic growth. On immigration, Obama received a 30 percent approval and 60 percent disapproval.

The depth of the public’s negativity to the administration matches its breadth. When asked about their feelings regarding Obama’s presidency, just 9 percent were very satisfied, while 35 percent were very disappointed – a four to one negative margin.

Finally closing the circle, the poll found Republicans had an 11 percent advantage over Democrats as to which party would better handle the economy, a 12 percent margin on foreign policy, and a 21 percent advantage on terrorism. Only on healthcare did Democrats best Republicans – and then only by 6 percent, down from a 10 percent advantage just four months earlier.

Reading the poll results, Republicans seem to have something for everyone. From domestic policy to foreign policy, the president has Republicans’ shopping list covered this election season.

Like holiday shoppers, election voters can be slow to come to decisions they know they are going to make at some point. We know months ahead that we will be buying holiday gifts, but most of us will not think about it until just before Christmas. When we do reach the season though, the decisions can come quickly and decisively. The same is happening now for the November midterms.

There is also another similarity between December shopping and November elections: the cost.

Obama has liberally used his political credit card, amassing debt upon debt. As we all know, when using a credit card, it can be all too easy to forget just how free we have been with it until the bill comes.  The problem for Democrats is that this bill will not go to the White House, but to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. While Obama has run it up, congressional Democrats will have to pay it off.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.