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National Politics|By Amy Walter, June 18, 2014
Even though I have lived in Washington for almost 25 years, I like to think of myself as only slightly cynical. I don’t hate politics or politicians. I think our electoral system, while imperfect, is still pretty good. I think voters are smarter than we give them credit for. However, I’m not so Pollyana-ish to believe that voters are drawn to the polls by love or joy. Even “hope” doesn’t go all that far in a non-presidential election. What gets people to the polls, especially in mid-term years, is anger and antipathy. And, it is this “anger gap” which has only been growing larger over the last few weeks, that serves as one of the biggest threats to Democrats this fall.

Dislike and distrust between ideologically-oriented Americans has reached a new high. In its must-read opus on political polarization, Pew Research found that “72 percent of “consistent conservatives” have a very unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party” – a 44 point increase from 1994. Among “consistent liberals,” 53 percent feel negatively about the GOP – more than double the share that felt that way 20 years ago.

More important, the Pew data also found that the more engaged a voter is with the political process, the greater the level of their hostility to the opposite party. Overall, 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans see the opposite party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” But, among those who are most politically active, 44 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans believe the other party is a “threat.” These are the voters that show-up in low turn-out elections and who donate money to congressional candidates. Keeping these voters engaged means keeping their hostility to the other side well-fed.  And, right now, from Benghazi to Bergdahl, from incompetence at Veterans Affairs  to “lost” emails from ex-IRS chief Lois Lerner, the White House has been serving up a virtual buffet.

Meanwhile, the GOP is, at this point, keeping its proverbial, um, stuff, together and denying much sustenance to the Democratic partisans. The fact that Rep. Kevin McCarthy was able to so swiftly and forcefully rally his GOP colleagues around his candidacy for Majority Leader suggests most House GOPers are wary of anymore Tea Party antics (a la government shut-down) for the rest of the session. Victories by “establishment” GOPers in key Senate primaries have helped to lessen the possibility of another “legitimate rape” candidate emerging this fall.  

A more disciplined GOP is not the only factor that could temper Democratic enthusiasm at the polls; the struggling economy remains a motivation killer as well. Despite what economists and Wall Street say, the majority of Americans remain pessimistic about the state of the economy. The latest installment of the CNBC “All American Economic Survey” (taken by Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies), finds that a majority of Americans (59 percent) remain both “pessimistic about the current economic situation, and pessimistic for the future.” This number is virtually unchanged from polling taken this year and in 2013.

Back in April, I wrote that “voters that make up the Democratic coalition – women, minorities, young people and economically downscale voters – are more pessimistic about the economy than they were in 2012.” Today, they remain glum, but a bit less so. For example, back in March, 62 percent of those making less than $50,000/year said they were pessimistic about the economy now and pessimistic about it getting better a year from now. In June, however, that number dropped to 56 percent. Women and young people (those 18-29) are also feeling a bit better about things, though non-whites are as pessimistic as they were back in March.

The deeper the White House falls into the doldrums, the tougher it is for Democrats to dig out of it.  More than ever, finds Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz, Americans are taking their cues on how they’ll vote in congressional elections from how they feel about the sitting president.  According to Abramowitz, back in the "olden days" (1972-1980), just 61 percent of those who approved of the job the President was doing supported the Senate candidate from his party. Moreover, 30 percent of voters who disliked the job the president was doing voted for a member of his party anyway. By 2012, these cross-over voters had virtually disappeared. Last cycle, 90 percent of the voters who approved of President Obama's job performance voted for a Democratic candidate for the Senate. Meanwhile, 82 percent of those who disapproved of the job President Obama was doing voted for a GOP candidate for the Senate. Given that President Obama’s approval rating in some of these battleground states is in the mid-to-high 30’s, a Democrat is going to need to get close to 30 percent of the Obama disapprovers to support him/her. A very high bar indeed.

Of course, the increasing nationalization of Senate races doesn't mean that GOPers can afford a Todd Akin-like candidate to emerge. Regardless of where that candidate resides, his/her comments will make their way into Senate races across the country. Plus, unlike 2010, Republicans are now part of the dysfunctional Washington system and can no longer get the “benefit of the doubt” from voters.  

From economic inequality to climate change to gay rights, the President is using his “executive pen” to do more than just bypass Congress; he’s using it to try and motivate his base. However, what Democrats need more than a pen is a good old-fashioned Republican boogey-man/woman to get their partisans fired up and ready to go.  Lots of Democrats are hoping the Koch brothers can fill that role. But, they are insufficient stand-ins for real GOPers doing real stuff that gets the other side’s blood boiling. Meanwhile,  just about every week the White House is giving the GOP the motivation it needs.