If there were a theme for 2014 midterms, it would be "fear and loathing of Washington, D.C."
Congress is as about as popular as gonorrhea. President Obama's approval ratings and personal ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency. Republicans, as well, have seen their favorable ratings hit all-time lows.
But while neither party can escape blame or scorn, Democrats are more likely to feel the fall-out than Republicans. Why? Democrats have more vulnerable seats in play in both the House and the Senate. The President's approval ratings are a bigger driver of electoral outcomes than that of Congress. The Obamacare issue is more likely to be an anvil than a benefit politically for the Democrats. And, of course, there's history working against Democrats too. See; Itch, Six Year.
The best news for Democrats is that their 63-seat wipe-out in 2010 means they have fewer seats to lose in the House this time around. Plus, the GOP has shown a tremendous capacity over the last two cycles to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. There's no guarantee they won't blow their advantages once again in 2014 (a.k.a. Government Shutdown 2.0). As one GOP strategist told me: "There are a LOT of chastened GOPers in the House right now, BUT the base voters are not chastened or satisfied." That, of course, can lead to more intra-party clashes and mismatched priorities in the coming year.
There's also evidence that the economy, which has sputtered along for much of the last couple years, may pick up more serious steam in 2014.
So, while this may indeed be a "cross-wind" election, Democrats, more than Republicans, will feel some wind in their face. To gauge how strong the wind will be, it's important to watch these five things closely:
1.) President Obama's Job Approval Rating:
One of the best predictors of political performance is the job approval rating of the president. When people feel good about the president they reward his party. When they feel bad, they punish his party, and right now, Obama is in the bad category. The most recent average from the Huffington Post's Pollster shows the President's ratings under water at 42 percent favorable/54 percent unfavorable.
To put that into perspective, on the eve of the GOP rout in 2010, Obama's job ratings were slightly better (45 percent favorable/50 percent unfavorable).
If Obama's ratings stay in the low 40's, it is going to be very tough to see Democrats prevail in red states or even in states/districts the President narrowly carried in 2012.
2.) Voter Trust In President Obama
No one should be surprised that the back-to-back self-inflected political troubles - the government shut-down and the Healthcare.gov meltdown- took a toll on the President's ratings. For the first time in his presidency, almost as many voters believe Obama is not "honest and trustworthy" as believe he is.
The question now is whether these numbers can bounce back.
In their new book chronicling the 2012 election, political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck write that Obama’s approval ratings were remarkably consistent throughout his first term. His job approval rating in 2012 was three-points higher than their forecasting models had predicted. One reason given for Obama’s ability to “beat the spread” was his strong personal brand and appeal.
Once that "brand" is damaged, however, it may no longer be possible for the President to see his job approval ratings simply bounce back to "normal." In fact, it will be easier to fix the website than it will be to fix Obama's credibility problem. The President's "if you like your healthcare you can keep it" promise is going to dog him and his party, throughout the next two years (and maybe longer). The fact of the matter is there are going to be lots of people, not just those on individual plans, who will see changes to their current insurance. That means more opportunities for Republicans to remind voters of this broken promise.
Which leads us to our next issue:
3.) How Those with Insurance View Obamacare
The math on the politics of health care reform is surprisingly simple. Most people in this country (about 82 percent) have health insurance of some sort, and most like the coverage they have.
So, if those 82 percent currently covered by health insurance are either 1.) adversely affected by the new law; or 2.) convinced they will be adversely affected by it, they will overwhelm the significant, but smaller, number of those who are getting insured for the first time. In other words, while the fact that more people than ever have access to health insurance is a tremendous public policy accomplishment, it won't translate into a political benefit for Democrats if those with insurance are exceedingly unhappy and frustrated.
Right now, 50 percent of those who have insurance view the law unfavorably, compared to 39 percent of those who do have insurance.
The only way to move those numbers, of course, is through communication. Until now, all the information getting to the public about the ACA has been negative. Per Kantar Media CMAG, $403 million in negative political ads about the ACA have aired from the first commercials, which hit in July 2009, through December 3, 2013. Most of these ads have aired in election years, of course, but pile on top of that $403 million the incessant jokes by late-night comedians (watched by the same young people the Administration is hoping will sign up) and news coverage about the faulty website as a very recent mega-million jolt of negative free media.
More important, beyond the federal, state and Univision educational campaigns, there has been no distinctly positive ads to counter the onslaught of negativity. Yet. This week, two pro-Democratic SuperPACs, Senate Majority PAC and Put Alaska First PAC, went up with ads praising Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan (NC) and Mark Begich (AK) for their support of the law. Even so, we don't know whether these are isolated incidents, or the beginning of a full-scale effort by Democrats to put forth a serious paid effort to defend and define the debate around the ACA. Without concerted paid media, it's hard to believe that voters are going to feel any better about the new law in 2014 than they do today. The only hope for Democrats is that they are simply ambivalent instead of outright hostile.
4.) The Economy
While consumer confidence may be wavering (thanks in part to the shut-down and Healthcare.gov mess), there seems to be something of a consensus building that 2014 is going to be better than expected economically. One economic analyst firm in DC said they expect "a meaningful improvement" in GDP, though this source adds it won't be "knocking the cover off the ball."
A (slowly) improving economy helped Obama fend off Romney in 2012. It could also help lessen the drag that a gridlocked D.C. and Obamacare have on Democrats in 2014.
5.) The Tech Gap:
Democrats were pleasantly surprised to see a turn-out in the Virginia gubernatorial race look more like 2012 than 2009. The take-away: Democrats can mitigate their base's drop-off when Obama is not at top of the ticket. Many credit this to Democrats more robust data and technology apparatus that allows them to better target and turn-out voters than the GOP.
That said, it's also true that Democrats could not replicate the 2012 electorate in Virginia and faced drop-off problems in almost every significant election in 2013. Real Clear Politics' Sean Trende looked at elections for federal office and statewide offices this year where both parties competed and found that "Democrats have been running three to five points behind Obama's 2012 showing with surprising consistency."
Of course, we should expect to see higher turn-out in a mid-term election versus an off-year one, but it's also clear that technology can only do so much. Even those who work closely with "big data," contend that it can't move the needle all that far. So, while the tech advantage may be the difference in a very, very close race, it's hard to believe it will be enough to move a race five points.
Bottom line: there are more issues working against Democrats than for them in 2014. The best news for Democrats is that there is plenty of time for their numbers to get better. An improving economy - one which voters believe and feel - could help to boost Obama's approval ratings and mitigate the fall-out from Obamacare.
- October 30, 2013Beating The Tea Party On Their Own Turf
- November 6, 2013Lessons for 2014 and beyond from the 2013 Elections
- November 20, 2013On ACA, Democrats Need More Offense, Less Defense