What keeps White House adviser David Axelrod up at night? The answer to that question is clearly suggested by the Associated Press:
For the first time since 1930, Republican votes for statewide offices are outnumbering Democratic votes, according to an analysis from American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. And Republicans, eager to campaign against Democrats who control the House, Senate and White House, are casting primary ballots at the highest rate since 1970.
"It isn't surprising that Republican turnout increased," said Curtis Gans, director of the center, citing intense battles within the party and the opportunity for GOP gains in Congress and in governors' offices. "But what's likely to prove telling is the lower participation of the Democrats, the first tangible demonstration of what polls have been showing — a distinct lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic rank and file."
There is great variation in the topline generic ballot numbers - ranging from a tie to a Republican lead of 13 points. But the internals all point in the same basic direction. Republicans and Democrats are well sorted - R's favoring R's by 90-10, D's favoring D's by 90-10 - and Independents backing Republicans by 10 points or more.
The difference from poll to poll is mostly in how heavily each subgroup is sampled. If a sample favors Democrats over Republicans and Independents, you'll find a tie. If it favors Republicans, you'll find a big GOP lead.
And note that in the RealClearPolitics average of the generic ballot, there are two samples of likely voters - Rasmussen and ABC News/WaPo - and both of them favor Republicans by enormous margins.
The implication is clear: Republicans are "fired up, ready to go" for November. Democrats are not.
This is what has Axelrod up late.
He has good reasons to be concerned. We have seen time and again since November, 2009 that the composition of the midterm electorate is going to be tilted toward the GOP. Combine the American University's report, the Virginia-New Jersey-Massachusetts results, and of course unprecedented GOP enthusiasm. All of this suggests that Republicans are going to dominate the November midterm.
This, I think, explains the White House's total disinterest in trans-partisanship. In the thinking of West Wing gurus, President Obama tried to forge a "coalition of everybody," much as Wilson, FDR, and Clinton tried - but the GOP threw it back in his face. And the result is a totally dispirited Democratic base and an amped up Republican base.
I think this view of the world is wrong. The President's attempts at bipartisanship typically ranged from half-hearted to specious, and his policies were never centrist. Centrists in the 111th Congress - of both parties - typically voted against the President's agenda. Of course, if you're on the left-hand side of the country, at, for instance, the New Republic or the American Prospect, the President did look awfully centrist. But from the perspective of middle America, he did not. Still, as wrong as this view is, I think the White House, like a lot of liberals, genuinely believes that the President tried earnestly to extend the hand of friendship, but had it bitten. The fact that it thinks it genuinely tried just goes to show that it - and, for that matter, much of the liberal intelligentsia - totally misunderstands American conservatism and the Republican party. That's ironic because the Tea Parties have a distinctly Jeffersonian Republican flair to them, and the DNC touts Thomas Jefferson as the party's founder.
Regardless, the President is facing a situation in which the opinions of Republicans and Independents are essentially set, and have been set for a while. Republicans have been long gone, obviously. But so are Independents. Gallup has had the President's job approval with Independents under 45% for almost four months. There is nothing the White House can do between now and the election to bring them back. Not with Recovery Summer turning into Recovery Sputter.
So what is left for the White House? Rally the base.
That is going to be the strategy coming from the West Wing for the next two months. That's why the President was never going to listen to moderates in his own party about the Bush tax cuts. It's why he is going to union meetings to talk about...sigh...more infrastructure spending. It's why he's talking about how his opponents treat him like a dog. Expect more stuff like this. He'll call out Fox News and Glenn Beck. For the next two months, the message from the White House is going to be like Ponderosa for the left: all you can eat red meat.
That's all the White House has left. Their hope - faint as it is - is to cede Independents, but amp up the Democratic base so the party does not get swamped by Republicans voting 90-10 against the Democrats.
My sense is that even if the White House manages to amp up its base, it is still going to lose the House. Take the basic Gallup numbers, recalibrate them for the 2006 turnout, and you still see a GOP win of +4 or thereabouts. Even with the (totally unrealistic for this year) 2008 numbers, you see a tie in the House vote, which I think would tilt the House to the GOP, thanks to the Democratic vote being concentrated in heavily Democratic districts. The White House is concerned that, if the turnout models continue the way they are, the final vote in November will be in line with Rasmussen and ABC News/WaPo, something like +13.
In other words, the White House, at this point, might be happy to walk away with a 1994-style loss. The worry is something closer to 1946 or 1894, when the Democrats struggled to get 45% of the vote.