Which way will the political winds be blowing in 2014? At this point, it looks more like a cross-wind, with both parties likely to face some resistance, but not the kind of crushing political headwinds faced by Republicans in 2006 or Democrats in 2010.
Barack Obama’s job approval rating, an important barometer for the health of his party, is rather anemic. Since June, Obama's approval rating, as tracked by Gallup, has remained under 50 percent and is currently upside-down at 46 percent approve and 48 percent disapprove. This is far below the approval ratings of where second-termers Bill Clinton (58 percent) and Ronald Reagan (63 percent) were at this point in their presidencies. But, it's in-line with George W. Bush's 49 percent approval rating for mid-July.
Bush's ratings continued to sour through the 2006 election, with his pre-Election Day rating a dismal 38 percent. Bush's party, of course, went on to lose 6 Senate seats and 30 House seats - along with the House majority - in 2006.
Unlike Bush, however, Obama's approval ratings have stayed within a rather narrow “trading range” for his entire presidency. Since 2009, Obama’s ratings have held between 46 percent at the low end and 52 percent at the high end.
The other factor that may keep Obama's approval rating from taking a dive into George W. Bush territory is the fact that the economy, for the first time in years, is actually looking up. According to the latest consumer data, Americans are more optimistic about the economy than they have been since Obama took office. Even so, a majority of Americans disapprove of the job Obama is doing on the economy. And, many remain wary about just how sustainable this economic recovery will be.
Democrats are also counting on the improving economy to temper voter frustration with the implementation of Obamacare. Even the most optimistic Democrats concede that the roll-out of the health care law will be rocky, uneven and confusing. But, the percentage of Americans impacted by the law will be limited by the fact that most Americans still get their health care through their employer- and won't be personally interacting with the exchanges. The question is whether voters believe that their own currently stable health care may soon be jeopardized. And, Republicans will most certainly be willing to help drive that perception.
Another cross-current is voter perception of Congress. While Congress may be universally unpopular, Democrats are seen more favorably than Republicans. In averaging the results of six national polls, we find that a majority of Americans (54 percent) had an unfavorable view of the Republican party. Democrats weren’t beloved, but they averaged a 46 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable score. Even so, that favorability gap doesn’t translate to Democrats favor when it comes to perceptions about performance. Andy Kohut of Pew Research writes: “Americans rate the parties about equally for dealing with the major problems such as the economy, immigration and gun control.”
An improving economy and a shrinking deficit mean a much better political environment for Democratic candidates than they’ve had in the past two elections. But the impending implementation of Obamacare is likely to serve as a political drag on Democratic candidates.
With neither side getting much of a headwind (or tailwind), we’re likely to see more of a status-quo election than a “wave” election. It also means that structural issues – like the political make-up of a state or congressional district, the quality of the candidates, and the resources available to the campaigns – will be more important than ever. Candidates and outside consultants are going to have to be more creative than they've been in recent elections. This election isn't about catching a wave, it's about reading the currents and knowing how to swim with them without getting caught in a rip-tide.
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