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The Rapidly-Changing Issue Environment and What It Means


It is our hope that this statement will be met with a bit of thankfulness: we are not going to predict the number of seats the Democrats will lose in November, nor are we going to give you the magical formula for making that prediction. We can't because there isn't one. What we can say is that voters are angry and that is usually a bad sign for the party in power.

Before we examine the political situation, here's a quick snapshot of the opinion landscape as of 6 A.M. on Monday, May 3rd:

  • If anyone needed more evidence that the issue environment is shifting rapidly, the last 24 hours has surely provided it. We have seen the gulf oil spill move from a serious issue to a potentially catastrophic event. On Saturday night, Times Square was evacuated in the face of a failed car bomb attempt. On Sunday, Secretary Napolitano said this was a "potential terrorist attack" and would be treated very, very seriously. The implications are clear for 2010: just when you think you have a good handle on the issue environment, you probably don't.
  • The gulf oil spill is a potential "game changer" for this President and the White House knows it. That is why Obama travelled to the region on Sunday. The administration is vulnerable to charges that they underplayed the seriousness of this issue in the first few days. The situation was nearly a week old before they began treating it as a crisis. The Katrina comparison has been overplayed but the implication is clear: move quickly to exert leadership or the perceived lack of action will drive blame.
  • In 1979 the accident at Three Mile Island stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants for 30 years. The question now is whether the gulf leak will do the same with respect to offshore oil drilling. Here the WH has a problem since Obama came out in support of drilling in the state of the union. Yet another hot-button issue for Obama.
  • At this point in time the implications of the Times Square car bomb scare are unclear. But if it is connected to an international terror group, all bets are off as to its impact on the national issue agenda. Two weeks ago, the fall election was going to be all about healthcare reform and the economy (oddly, GOP issues), last week it was about immigration and Wall Street reform (Democrat issues) and now the environment, drilling and terrorism are front and center. As we have seen before, if terrorism rises as a national issue, the President will receive at least short-term political benefit.

As for the November elections, here is what we know. Let's start with the good news for Republicans:

  • We are in one of the longest sustained periods of voter dissatisfaction in modern history. Except for a few weeks in the spring of 2009, perceptions of the direction of the country have been strongly "wrong track" since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That is seven years. The only comparable period is 1973-1983. This helps explain why we are in the middle of a third successive "change" election. Moreover, trust in government to do what is right is at an all-time low. In a Pew Research Center poll last month, less than one fourth (22%) of respondents said they could trust government most of the time. This is one of the lowest percentages in more than 50 years.
  • Republicans are dominating the generic congressional ballot. To start, as Jay Cost observed from a regression analysis back in 2006, the final Gallup poll generic ballot explains about 89% of the variation in the final House results on Election Day. We agree that the generic ballot is a great predictor of the House vote, but we also want to remind readers that Democrats have been "underperforming" on Election Day relative to the generic ballot. Over the past decade, Democrats have consistently led Republicans in both the national House ballot and national party identification questions, even in cycles where they haven't gained control of the chamber, like 2000 and 2004. So when the generic ballot shows Democrats to be tied with Republicans or even down by a couple points, this is pretty much unprecedented territory.
  • Voter enthusiasm is decidedly with Republicans. The latest Gallup poll on voter enthusiasm was a big blow for Democrats. Among voters who are "very enthusiastic" about the upcoming mid-term elections, the GOP was ahead by 20 points (57% to 37%) on the generic congressional ballot.
  • The party identification gap has narrowed ten points in 18 months as the GOP and Democrats are now near parity among registered voters. This is hugely problematic for Democrats. Historically, Democrats have a 5-10 point edge in party ID among registered. They often retain this edge even during GOP up-cycles. Like the generic ballot, we are in uncharted territory.
  • Of course, individual races do matter. But this too has looked ominous for Democrats. As Sean Trende notes, "Every Democratic Senate candidate, except five from very blue states (Pat Leahy (VT), Chuck Schumer (NY), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Dan Inouye (HI) and Richard Blumenthal (CT)), has had at least one poll test placing him or her below 50% this cycle. Similarly... [House] Democrats in [blue] districts who normally receive around 60% of the vote are below 50% as well."
  • Basically, there are too many Democrats sitting in GOP-leaning districts. Howard Dean's efforts as DNC Chairman to "redraw the map" by contesting previously safe Republican districts have put an unusual number of freshman and sophomore Democrats in peril. While the project certainly bore fruit in 2008 and vindicated Dean's controversial strategy, there are now many more seats that will be difficult to defend. Take Virginia's 5th district: in 2008 Tom Perriello defeated six-term incumbent Virgil Goode by a margin of less than 800 votes as part of an unprecedented success for Democrats in Virginia (this was driven by a turnout surge of new Obama voters). However, the district has a Cook PVI of R+5, meaning that historically it has leaned toward Republicans, and in the only public poll, his approval rating is 42% approve/ 46% disapprove. Perhaps most troubling for Perriello, who voted "yea" on healthcare: 52% of his district's voters are against the bill and 50% disapprove of Obama.

On the other hand, there is some good news for Democrats (though not nearly as much):

  • The current issue frame is decidedly negative for Republican candidates. So long as the dialogue in Washington is focused on financial regulation and immigration reform, Republicans will be on the defensive. Add to that a potential terrorist attack and things are aligned for the President to demonstrate leadership. Ultimately, this may only be a short-term situation but, for the time being, the Democrats will benefit.
  • The economy is slowly improving. The economy grew by 3.2% during the first quarter of 2010. That makes three straight positive growth quarters. This pretty much signals that the recession ended in the spring of 2009. However, voter perception has not caught up with reality and until there is meaningful job growth the economy will continue to be a huge problem for Democrats.
  • The WH and the Democrats had an early warning bell this year - unlike 1994 - and they are mounting a counterattack. Just because they have been alerted to the approaching iceberg doesn't mean the current won't steer the Democrats right into it anyway, but the DNC's new campaign shows that they are not going to go down without a fight. Obama's trip to the mid-west this week was a step in the right direction in terms of addressing voter frustrations. We remain skeptical that new voter enlistment efforts will work in a non-Presidential year but it is worth a try.
  • Obama's approval rating is moribund but not toxic (yet). The President's approval rating is somewhere around 48%, depending on whose tally you are looking at. His disapproval is around 47-48%. If his approval gets back to or above 50% it will be a big help to Democrats in the fall.


There are two landmines that Republicans will need to navigate in the months ahead.

  1. First is the anti-incumbent sentiment that has gripped this electorate. Again, this helps Republicans from a big picture perspective because Democrats are in power, but it also suggests that voters aren't happy with either party, setting up a situation where it won't be enough for Republicans to be merely "not Democrats." And, to be honest, it is probably a good thing for both the country and Republicans themselves that they will be forced to articulate an alternative vision and set of policies. Of course, history shows that anti-incumbent sentiments do tend to help the opposition party, as this chart demonstrates:
  2. EM chart may 3 2010.jpg

  3. The second landmine is the Tea Party movement. There has been some interesting research done on the Tea Party movement (see the Winston Group's polling as well as TargetPoint's recent "exit poll" from a rally), but, to a large extent, we're still guessing as to the true identity of this group, especially with respect to its voting behavior (because it's never really voted as a "party" before). This is, after all, a group of people with a disparate collection of ideologies and philosophies, though most seem to be disaffected conservatives. So while most of them have probably never voted for a Democrat, they are clearly not just GOP base voters (and they aren't just former Perot voters, either). They are, in fact, a new, different subset of the electorate, and our sense is that the Tea Party label represents an option for people to either vote for write-ins or stay home. If either of those options occurs on a large scale, Republican gains will fall far short of historic.

 

Comments
Farleftandproud:

This analysis makes it sound like what Obama has done has been bad as president. He is responsible for handling these problems, but so far nobody from the GOP has shown that they could handle these problems like the oil spill and others nearly as well. The GOP has simply been a thorn in obama's side and has only been an obstructionist party, and with just a few exceptions has done a poor job at making any suggestions. I was actually hoping the few moderates left in the GOP would have worked with him better. So far the one who comes to mind is Charlie Crist.

The news media even Fox has little to do with the misinformation that many of the center/left independent voters who have probably been a major part of the trend towards the GOP. I think it is elements of hearsay coming from their friends, churches, co-workers and local newspapers. I don't think what they watch on the news really makes a huge impact and most of these people don't really watch or care about what is going on.

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Field Marshal:

What misinformation are you talking about? Is it the gross misinformation in the AZ immigration bill or the ridiculous assertions that the HCR bill would reduce the deficit and health care costs?

The fact is that the GOP isn't working with Obama because Obama hasn't operated anywhere near the center where moderates would work with him. This is fairly obvious since he couldn't get moderate DEMS to vote for some of his bills, especially HCR, without bribing them.

This has little to do with the GOP and everything to do with Dems. Its an anti-incumbent environment and the Dems are in complete control. While 2008 was about the failure of capitalism, 2010 will be about the failure of Keynesian and the overreach of government. The out of control spending and the daily new increase in government power is P-issing people off royally.

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GARY WAGNER:

"As we have seen before, if terrorism rises as a national issue, the President will receive at least short-term political benefit."

In a year this strongly partisan, and especially with the notable nastiness coming out in Obama's recent speeches, I don't think you can even make an assumption like this. This has been the most polarizing president in my memory and at least 40% of the country is unwilling to give him a break on anything.

Obama has decided to get personal. He is mocking people by name. That might play well to his supporters but not many people like a mean mocking president. His current strategy might be to stabilize the base and get people fired up, but only 28% of the voters strongly approve of him and are eating up all that nastiness but 40% strongly disapprove and that number will only grow if he keeps up his current political tactics.

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Marcello Mastroianni:

If I recall correctly, a Republican pollster had an amusing quote back in 2006:

"The good news is that the Democrats don't have a winning strategy. The bad news is that they might not need one."

A plus ca change...

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Farleftandproud:

The Democrats do have a winning strategy put the problem with it is there are many unanswered questions. Many of their policies I believe will take affect in time. The economy is the biggest issue that could help or hurt the Democrats this November.

I would like to say that our biggest foreign terror attack did happen under a Republican President. So far there have been some scares but the recent NYC bombing, there isn't yet proof who did it. There are Islamic nuts and right wing nuts, and I would agree that homeland security has to step up their intelligence to get both.

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GARY WAGNER:

"I would like to say that our biggest foreign terror attack did happen under a Republican President."

Thank you for pointing that out. It has about as much relevance as the temperature of mud as the bottom of the Kalamazoo river, but it is true.

The democrats don't have a winning strategy that includes losing in December. That kind of defeats the purpose of having a "winning" strategy, doesn't it?

The immediate opposition to and overreaction to the Arizona law will kill any momentum the democrats might have felt in the past month.

The delay in the response to the oil well disaster shows that Obama is capable of his own Katrina type response and certainly doesn't want to talk about Louisiana any more.

The possible terrorist attack in times square will be the final nail in the coffin by the time Nepalitano gets done with it. I guarantee she will do and/or say something incredibly stupid and will show a tremendous weakness in our homeland security.

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mark mann:

Ah, Gary, Gary. There you go again.
It would be refreshing if you provided evidence to back up your 'passionate intenstity' .
"nastiness"? why don't you provide a quote that supports your point about Obama. like my quote from Yeats supports my point about you. That way you would be making an argument worth reading, not just calling The President of the United States names.

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GARY WAGNER:

That would be a complete waste of my time. If you can't see how mean and nasty this arrogant know-it-all condescending man has gotten then it wouldn't matter what I posted. You're already ignoring the evidence that is right before your eyes. What good would more do?

Chances are that you are one of those 20% that like how nasty he is getting with his rude mocking and personal attacks.

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