Monday, July 28, 2014

Why Do Obama's Approval Numbers Matter?

As of today, we are less than 100 days away from Election Day. A little more than five years ago, Democrats were fawning over the first 100 days of the Obama presidency. Today, they are considerably less enthusiastic about the next 100 days.

Nothing is cast in stone yet, but the sands are running rapidly through the hourglass for the Democrats.

Over and over, I have been asked the same question: Why do Barack Obama's approval numbers matter in the 2014 midterms?

Usually, I am asked this question by folks who still haven't gotten over that "Yes, we can" mindset from 2008 — some things matter because we say they matter, and other things don't matter because we say they don't matter — and they can't comprehend what has changed.

Well, there's this matter of delivering on one's promises — and presidents always seem to get the short end of the stick on that one. Either they haven't delivered on their promises, and folks are upset about that — or they have delivered on their promises, and folks are upset about that.

A voter's preference is a moving target. It all really depends on whose ox is being gored.

Some people don't understand that a single election never settles things, once and for all — and that no president can count on the same kind of support for his subordinates that he received two years earlier. Those subordinates are charged with implementing the president's policies via the legislative branch. When the policies ain't working, all involved are held accountable.

If the president isn't on the ballot, disgruntled voters will do as George Wallace used to encourage them to do — Send 'em a message. By proxy if necessary.

I'm sorry if this refresher civics course seems elementary. I mention it only to remind folks that this is a democracy, and people make no lifetime commitments to candidates, causes or parties. Well, some do, but many do not, and that really is perplexing for some.

They find the independence of the American voter bewildering.

Obama isn't on the ballot, they point out. He is barred by law from seeking a third term. The election isn't about him. It's about keeping the Senate and winning the House. (OK, even the diehards aren't mentioning that last one anymore. It's become one of those "in a perfect world" kind of things for modern Democrats. Holding on to the Senate is enough of a challenge.)

Well, technically, I suppose, that is true. We aren't electing a president in 2014. We are electing one–third of the Senate and all of the House, just as we do every two years. Every four years, we throw a presidential election into the mix — but not this time.

We're midway through the current four–year presidential term — hence, these are the midterm elections.

Historically, midterms have served as electoral adjustors. They almost always go against the party that occupies the White House, and that tendency is even more pronounced in a president's second midterm. In recent years, it has been referred to as a fatigue factor. There was talk of "Bush fatigue" in 2006 and "Clinton fatigue" in 1998. I can even remember talk of "Reagan fatigue" in 1986.

(If Watergate had not ended his presidency early, Nixon might well have encountered "Nixon fatigue" in November 1974. In hindsight, that might have been better for the Republicans. As it was, they lost five Senate seats and four dozen House seats in the Watergate backlash.)

I'm not really sure why it is that presidential fatigue seems to settle in at this point in a two–term presidency. I just know that it is so. Except for extremely rare circumstances, a president's party is radioactive two years after his re–election.

George W. Bush was extremely unpopular just before the 2006 midterms. Polls consistently showed his approval in the mid– to upper 30s prior to the election, and his Republicans lost six Senate seats and 32 House seats.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was very popular. About a week before the election, his approval rating was 63%, according to Gallup. His popularity took a major hit after the election — when the Iran–Contra scandal was in the news — but Reagan's party still lost control of the Senate for the first time in six years (as well as five seats in the House).

Bill Clinton's second midterm in 1998 probably should have been a disaster for the Democrats — after all, in Clinton's first midterm, his party lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years — but 1998 was one of those extreme circumstances of which I spoke earlier. Republicans were perceived as having overreached in their attempt to impeach Clinton, and voters gave Democrats a four–seat gain in the House.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that Republicans are more engaged than Democrats, but they aren't as enthusiastic as they were in 2010 — or as Democrats were in 2006.

There may be good news and bad news in that for both parties. If Republicans are not as enthused as they were four years ago, they might not be as inclined to show up at the polls. Good news for Democrats.

Pew also finds that, currently, there is virtually no difference in party preference. Forty–five percent of voters prefer Republicans, 47% prefer Democrats. More good news for Democrats.

The enthusiasm gap for the out–of–power party is not as great this year, Pew reports, as it was in 2010 or 2006.

But that is how it stands in July. Unfortunately for Democrats, the election isn't being held in July. Numerous surveys over the years suggest that most Americans don't start paying attention to political campaigns until around October.

More than three–fourths of Republican–leaning voters say they definitely will vote this year whereas about two–thirds of Democrat–leaning voters say they definitely will vote — but those numbers are slightly lower for Republicans and a little higher for Democrats than they were four years ago. Again, more good news for Democrats.

However, about half of those Republican voters say they will vote against any and all supporters of Obama's policies, which is not much different from this point in the election cycle four years ago.

People still point to polls showing record–high dissatisfaction with Congress, and that can't be denied, but it can be misinterpreted. Yes, the American people aren't happy with Congress. But they never are. Dissatisfaction was pretty high in 2006 and 2010, too, but most incumbents who sought re–election were re–elected.

Typically, when people say they are not satisfied with Congress, they mean other people's senators and representatives, not their own. Anti–incumbency is said to be running high today, but it hasn't shown itself much in this year's party primaries.

And conventional wisdom holds that undecided voters are more inclined to break for the challenger in the closing days and weeks of a campaign. Thus, the likelihood that the voters will throw the bums out in November is very low.

What can Obama do? Well, in some cases, the best thing he can do is stay away entirely. He will continue to be a factor in the midterms — presidents just are, that's all there is to it — so he needs to respect the wishes of Democrats who are trying (in some instances, desperately) to hold on to their seats in red states like Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Observers are already referring to races in red states like Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, where Democrats are retiring, as sure things for the GOP — which would put Republicans halfway to their goal of six seats to seize control of the Senate. Defeating Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina would give them the majority — assuming Democrats don't win one of a couple of Republican–held seats in which they are perceived as competitive.

That kind of thing — where the party that is fighting the electoral tide succeeds — doesn't usually happen in midterm elections, but, as Larry Sabato reminds us, "every election is different."

Earlier, Sabato was inclined to think that 2014 would be another "wave election," like the midterms of 2006 and 2010, but so far, he writes, "this election hasn't gelled quite the way it earlier appeared on paper."

Republicans are also fantasizing about picking up Democratic seats in Iowa, maybe Michigan and Oregon, too. These were seats that, not so long ago, were regarded as safe for the Democrats.

The fact that they are no longer seen as safe should send a chill down every Democrat's spine.

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