16 April 2010
With just more than six months until President Obama’s midterm elections, both current and historical data would lead you to believe there will be sizable gains for congressional Republicans in November. How big the gains will be depends largely on whether current data becomes a lasting trend. Multiple factors will determine that – some known, and, as always in politics, some unknowable.
Since the passage of health care reform, the two parties have stuck to their respective midterm strategies. As the president and the Democrats pursue financial regulatory reform, they have framed their efforts as protecting the interests of Main Street. And, as with health care, they have shown that they are putting passage of legislation ahead of bipartisanship. Republicans, on the other hand, are sticking to their government overreach narrative to oppose the reform measure. While each party’s strategy is rooted in data, it is not without risk in a volatile public environment that doesn’t favor either party.
For example, on health care President Obama and the Democrats bet on the public’s desire to see results over the public’s preference for a bipartisan bill. A Gallup poll a week after the plan’s passage showed increased support for health care reform, but also found a majority (53%) disapproved of the congressional Democrats’ methods to get it passed. In fact, 58% of the all important independents believed that the Democrats’ methods were an “abuse of power,” while 36% said it was an “appropriate use of power.”
With the intensity of public debate centered on the financial industry, it is highly likely the Democrats will get some Republican support for financial regulatory reform. But, as much as the GOP must balance promoting its limited government position with the risk of becoming the “party of no,” Democrats will need to be careful not to play right into the GOP’s “dangerous government expansion” narrative. Statements made by Democratic and Republican congressional leaders following a bipartisan White House meeting on financial legislation Wednesday underscored the two narratives and the high stakes politics at work here. Democrats accused Republicans of stalling to advance Wall Street’s interests. Republicans hammered Democrats for more spending and more bailouts.
Other issues before Congress that will play out over the next few months leading up to the midterms are a Supreme Court nomination, a new climate change bill and Senate consideration of a new arms-reduction treaty. And then there is always the unknown – an unforeseen event that cannot only influence an election, but can shape a presidency.
So, let’s look at the public environment that the two parties are navigating as they make their case to voters. Not surprisingly, the economy remains the top issue in the 2010 elections. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 57% of voters said the economy would be extremely important to their vote for Congress, followed by 49% saying healthcare, 46% unemployment and 45% saying the federal budget deficit.
We are in a very different climate than the last midterms in 2006 when Iraq and terrorism topped the list.
There are some distinguishing variations when these numbers are broken down by party. For Republicans, the economy leads with 54%, followed by the federal budget deficit (47%) and terrorism (47%). For Democrats, the economy leads with 58%, followed by healthcare (55%) and unemployment (51%).
For independents, the budget deficit (52%) is second to the economy (57%), followed by healthcare (47%). So, more independents think the deficit is a top priority in the midterms than Republicans or Democrats. In fact, of those who say the deficit is extremely important to their vote, 56% would vote for the Republican and 36% for the Democrat.
And while a majority (53%) of voters disapprove of the way the president is handling the federal budget deficit, when asked whether deficit reduction should take precedence over spending for job creation, 50% said job creation should be given priority, while 42% said budget reduction is more important (NYT/CBS).
Polls show that the public continues to trust Democrats more than Republicans on handling the economy and job creation (46% to 38%), but their advantage on this important measure is narrowing. A plurality continues to believe the stimulus has helped the economy.
Democrats are counting on a sustained economic recovery – if manifested in tangible ways Americans can feel – will help them in November.
And while the modest economic recovery continues with a healthy stock market and new data showing both the strongest job growth in three years and a surge in retail sales in March, unemployment still hovers near 10% and the housing sector remains weak. Economists agree that unemployment will likely remain in this range through the end of the year. This means long-term joblessness, currently at 44%, will increase.
Public confidence in the economy has improved. A New York Times/CBS News poll released yesterday showed a 9-point increase in economic optimism since February. According to Gallup’s poll, there is a political component to economic outlook. Gallup found overall confidence trending upward too, but found Democrats are more confident than Republicans. 60% of Democrats say the economy is improving, 37% of independents agree, while 21% of Republicans think the economy is getting better.
Polls also show that public approval for the president’s handling of the economy is declining. The NYT/CBS poll showed a month-to-month decline since January, with 43% approving. And time is running out for Democrats counting on economic recovery to help them in the midterms. The parameters of the midterms will likely be defined before third quarter numbers are available, making second quarter numbers critical. Economic confidence will have to continue to increase for the economy to be a helpful factor for Democrats.
In addition, polls show mixed results for the Democrats on health care reform. The Democrats will have to build broader public support for the legislation if they hope to translate that legislative victory into a political one by November. As I said in my last piece, it had an immediate political benefit in that passage enabled Democrats to turn the page to more popular proposals like financial regulatory reform. But, despite general increase in support of the plan post passage, a majority of the public remains concerned – particularly about cost.
Today, 41% of Americans approve of President Obama’s handling of health care (NYT/CBS). And according to my firm’s latest quarterly Public Trust Monitor, a 60% majority said they expect costs to increase. Gallup also found that both supporters and opponents of the plan agree that it doesn’t do enough to deal with rising health care costs.
With roughly 200 days to go until November 2, President Obama’s job approval rating is 49% (Gallup). Independent support for the president is at 44%. Favorability ratings for the Democrats are declining, while Republican favorability numbers have steadily increased over the past three months. This week’s NYT/CBS poll showed Democrats maintaining a slight edge over Republicans, 42% to 38%. According to Gallup, the favorability ratings for the two parties are tied at 42%.
Democratic favorability among independents was steady at 47% until last fall when it began to dip, first to 40% and most recently to 30%. Conversely, favorability numbers for the GOP among independents has increased from 31% to 36%.
In addition, our latest quarterly survey found public trust in both parties the same at 41%, marking a steady increase in trust in the GOP over the last year.
And while congressional approval has increased since the passage of health care reform, it remains low at 23% (Gallup). Congress’ historical average is 34%. Not surprisingly, congressional approval is up among Democrats and down among Republicans. Congressional approval is up slightly among independents.
For the first time, Gallup shows the Republicans lead the Democrats 48% to 44% on the generic ballot. Gallup also shows there is more enthusiasm among GOP voters.
There is a strong anti-incumbent sentiment. A record-low of 28% of voters say, “most members of Congress deserve to be reelected.” Independents are the least supportive of the three groups when it comes to reelecting their own member.
In two recent midterms where the balance of power changed – 1994 and 2006 – the percentage of voters saying this was below 40%.
Speaking of past midterms, let’s look at some other historical models.
First, in only two midterm elections since 1938 has the president’s party gained House seats – Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002. So, historically, the president’s party loses seats in midterm elections.
In addition, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse found that since President Kennedy, presidents with approval ratings below 50% have seen their parties lose an average of 41 House seats in midterm elections.
In 1966, President Johnson’s job approval was 44% (Gallup) when the Democrats lost 47 House seats. President Reagan’s approval was at 43% (Gallup) in November 1982 when the GOP lost 27 House seats.
In 1994, with President Clinton’s approval rating at 46% (Gallup), the Democrats lost 56 House seats and control of both chambers. And, in 2006 President Bush’s approval was 37% (Gallup) when the GOP lost 30 House seats, and the Democrats took control of both chambers.
So, these models offer us a way to begin to watch for trends that should indicate the outcome in November. Obviously, the closer to Election Day, the more accurately these historical models predict the outcome. So, in the coming months we’ll follow President Obama’s approval rating, the parties’ showing on the generic ballot, and public confidence in the economy to determine just how many of the approximately 65 competitive House races the GOP will win. They will need to win 40 of these races to recapture control of the House.