1. Obama’s Job Approval in Comparative Perspective. A key factor in the congressional midterm is the standing of the president. Even though he is not on the ballot, the president is seen as the leader of the government and a political party, and candidates from that party are inevitably viewed in that context.
Right now, Barack Obama is about where Bill Clinton was at this point in 1994, as the following chart (per Gallup) makes clear:
As you can see, Obama is in a slightly better position than Clinton was, but the difference is due entirely to Democratic support, which is stronger for Obama than for Clinton.
Interestingly, both Obama and Clinton are in a better position than George W. Bush was at this point in 2006. By early October, Bush was at 37 percent approval, with just 31 percent of independents approving of his job performance. Republicans “only” lost 30 seats that cycle, or 13 percent of the party’s total House caucus. In comparison, the Democrats lost 20 percent of the party caucus in 1994. A loss of 13 percent this cycle would result in about 33 Democratic seats flipping, which would underperform what most people think will happen.
Why the divergence between the two parties? One factor that I think is relevant is the distribution of each party’s support across the 435 House districts. President Obama defeated John McCain in 242 congressional districts in 2008 while winning the nationwide popular vote by 7.3 percent. In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 255 congressional districts while winning the nationwide popular vote by 2.4 percent. That’s 13 more districts for Bush even though his popular vote margin was 5 percent less. The Democratic vote is more concentrated – in majority-minority districts and what Michael Barone calls “gentry liberal” districts. So, Bush’s 37 percent approval in 2006 was better distributed across the 435 congressional districts than Obama’s 46 percent probably will be.
2. Generic Ballot. Typically, the ABC News/Washington Post poll can be counted on to give President Obama a better margin than what he gets in the other polls, and the latest installment was no exception. It finds the president at 50 percent approval while he is a shade under 46 percent in the RealClearPolitics average.
Yet the news coming from this poll was not great for Democrats, as it showed the GOP with a 6-point advantage in the generic ballot. Per Greg Sargent, we learn that independent voters are going for the GOP candidate by a whopping 20-point margin. If that holds on Election Day, we should see a result bigger than a 6-point GOP lead.
This speaks to a point I’ve been making the last couple days, one that is well worth repeating: It’s not advisable to get hung up on the overall spread in the generic ballot polls. In my opinion, there are only two factors that really vary from election to election: how independents break and the strength of each party in the electorate. I think it is too early to get a clear sense of the latter factor, so my focus for now is on the independents, who so far have given no indication that they’ll be supporting the Democrats. All of the generic ballot polls that have come out since last Friday – Newsweek, Rasmussen, Gallup, and now ABC News/WaPo – have produced Republican leads among independents larger than what was seen in 1994, this despite the fact that they vary wildly in terms of their final spreads. If these trends continue, the GOP will take better than 3/5ths of all independents.
3. Latest Signs of the Dem-Pocalypse. Rhode Island’s first congressional district gave Barack Obama 65 percent of the vote in 2008, and handed John Kerry 62 percent in 2004. Incumbent Democrat Patrick Kennedy is retiring, and the open seat battle is between Democrat David Cicilline and Republican John Loughlin. A Brown University poll completed late last month finds Cicilline in the lead, which is not surprising, but the poll finds him at just 39 percent. Other polls show him with a higher share of the vote, but still under 50 percent. In Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana’s second congressional district, a DailyKos/PPP poll finds Republican Joseph Cao hanging in there, down 11 points to Democratic challenger Cedric Richmond, with the latter under 50 percent. This New Orleans district gave Barack Obama 75 percent of the vote in 2008, and Cao only holds the seat because he narrowly defeated William Jefferson, who was under indictment at the time of the election.
I expect the GOP to lose both of these seats, but the fact the Republicans are reasonably close in both contests indicates how sharply the macro forces are cutting against the Democrats this cycle.
4. The Senate is Still in Play. The Republicans face a huge problem in the battle to control the Senate this cycle. As I have noted many times before, most of the seats the Democrats are defending are not in the South, Midwest, or Mountain West, where they are the weakest, but on the Pacific Coast and in the Northeast.
Even so, the Senate remains in play. A Fox News/POR-Rasmussen poll confirms what other pollsters have found in West Virginia: the GOP stands a very good chance. The poll finds Republican John Raese ahead of Democratic Governor Joe Manchin, 48-43. Raese has a strong lead among independents – and he is even doing well with Democrats, where he pulls in 25 percent. This is similar to the results in the 2008 presidential election, when 28 percent of self-identified Mountain State Democrats went for McCain. In fact, Raese looks like he is replicating the McCain coalition. PPP found basically the same thing last month.
On the left coast, another poll confirms what we have been seeing for a while, Barbara Boxer seems unable to get to 50 percent of the vote. Both Rasmussen and Reuters/Ipsos find her stuck at 49 percent of the vote, and the RealClearPolitics average puts her a shade under 48 percent.
The GOP still has an uphill climb, of course. If we put West Virginia in to the GOP column and assume that Harry Reid loses in Nevada, the Republicans will still need to win four seats from states that haven’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate in at least 20 years. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin look pretty well in hand for the GOP, but that still leaves two seats to win among California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, or Washington. Doable, but tough.
5. Quotes for the Day.
"The nation’s biggest, richest and most powerful labor unions spent months organizing the “One Nation Working Together” rally at the Lincoln Memorial Saturday. With midterm elections approaching, they hoped to put on a show of political strength to energize struggling Democratic candidates. But even after giving it everything they had, they still weren’t able to draw as many people as Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in August..."