A month from the midterm elections, an unusual dividing line has developed in the narrative of each party’s candidates and the national parties.
Republicans are happy to run against President Obama: a new Gallup poll shows a near record number of voters who plan to use their vote to protest against the president. These numbers are in line with those from 2010, when Republicans picked up 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats in the midterms with voter anger focused on Obamacare. The numbers also match up with the results in 2006, when opposition to President Bush over the Iraq War and his handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina led to Democrats taking control of both houses of Congress, winning 6 Senate seats and 29 House seats. In general, voters who are angry are a bit more passionate about voting than those who want to express support, particularly in midterms when turnout is well below what is seen in presidential election years.
Below, Gallup describes the results from its latest poll of registered voters. Note that Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com has argued that Republican support is usually a few points stronger among likely voters than is picked up in registered voter surveys:
Registered voters are more likely to view their choice of candidate in this year’s midterm elections as a message of opposition (32%) rather than support (20%) for President Barack Obama. That 12-percentage-point margin is similar to what Gallup measured for Obama in 2010 and George W. Bush in 2006, years in which their parties performed poorly in the midterm elections.
Surprisingly, given these bleak polling numbers of which the White House is clearly aware, President Obama seemed to double down this week, saying the upcoming Congressional elections were in fact a vote on his presidency:
Now, I am not on the ballot this fall. … But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot — every single one of them.
In The Atlantic, David Graham argues that, given the current lay of the land, Obama may believe that the Democrats’ best hope is to fire up their base so they are as angry at Republicans or enthusiastic about President Obama as Republican are angry at the president and his party.
The president’s strongest base is black voters. The response among this group to the recent Secret Service problems with a fence jumper at the White House and a potentially dangerous man riding in the elevator with the president in Atlanta at the CDC is exemplified by the comments made by constituents of Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Paranoia seemed to reign supreme, as Cummings claimed he was told that white Secret Service agents were allowing threats to get close to the black president.
That some blacks may see things in such a distorted fashion suggests the degree to which blacks see the president as their own, and remain intensely loyal to him and protective of him. This makes it very likely that they will continue to vote in lock-step fashion for his party, regardless of what he or other Democratic elected officials may or may not have done for them. The administration’s response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson seems to have played well with blacks to the extent it has increased their sense of victimhood, making race-sensitive election appeals more likely to succeed.
A cynic would say that the continued demonstrations in the St. Louis area about this incident are designed to keep the pressure on the Ferguson grand jury, but also to keep the story alive for blacks around the country — particularly in states with large black populations such as North Carolina and Louisiana, where competitive Senate races are to be decided.
The other major base group the Democrats are stoking is women voters, particularly single women. Here the appeals have been crafted and tested over several election cycles. Unmarried women vote Democratic in higher percentages than Hispanics, Jews, Asians, or gay voters. The Democrats need strong turnout among this group, since the margins are always very high. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says that for the first time this cycle, he seems optimistic that Democrats can hold their Senate majority (which may mean no more than 49 votes plus supposedly independent Greg Orman in Kansas, and Vice President Joe Biden as the tie-breaker).
Greenberg’s growing confidence that the Democrats’ Senate Maginot Line can hold seems largely based on the success of the Democrats’ use of the Republican “war on women” and “war on women’s health” themes, which have been the mother-lode of advertising and Democratic candidate campaigns for months.
Greenberg says Republicans still hold a small lead in battleground polls, but that the approval numbers for the president have bottomed and Obamacare may turn out to be a good motivating issue for Democratic voters. Most critical is expanding the gender gap:
The gender gap — especially as it pertains to single women — stands to benefit Democrats. That’s why Democrats are pushing so-called women’s issues (access to contraception, abortion rights, pay equity, etc.) in key Senate contests in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, North Carolina and elsewhere. Greenberg says that aside from the economy, Democrats have to succeed in making women’s issues a top reason why voters should choose candidates from their party.
Recent polls by Pew and Gallup indicate that Republicans lead on more issues that matter to voters today than they did earlier in the year. Democrats have particularly been hurt on immigration, where support has dropped significantly for the president’s amnesty legislation or for executive actions by the president that would bypass Congress. So, too, support for the president’s foreign policy has plummeted, with growing concern over the brutality of ISIS and our lateness to the effort to halt their gains in Iraq and Syria. There is also concern about the administration’s response to the Ebola crisis in Africa, which has now impacted a small number of Americans. Both issues are also tied in with immigration and border control, which has been a double whammy for the White House.
The president’s attempt to personalize the campaign and stoke the party’s base has plenty of obstacles in its path. Chief among them is the way the president continues to behave. This week will be day-after-day of coast-to-coast fundraising trips for the president. Ebola, ISIS (including the threat to Kurds on the Syrian-Turkish border), and immigration seem to be secondary items that can wait until party coffers have been replenished and a few more rounds of golf have been played.
When the president returned, all smiles, to the golf course after a brief statement about ISIS beheadings a few weeks back, it was part of the same pattern. This “above the fray” behavior has convinced an increasing number of voters that the president is AWOL, that the only two things the president never shortchanges seem to be golf and fundraisers.
It seems clear that none of this matters to black voters, and apparently not to most single women voters. The president just needs these groups to vote. The appeals, which will be easier to make with all that new campaign cash the president is helping to raise, will focus on what can get each base group agitated, angry at Republicans, or feeling the need to protect their president. Republicans will talk about Obamacare, immigration, and the unwillingness of the administration to project American power abroad.
In essence, their theme is that Barack Obama has been a terrible president, an incompetent really, and his party must be punished by electing Republicans to challenge the White House the next two years. The results will likely be decided by which side can translate anger to votes.