On the surface Democrats portray optimism about the 2014 midterms. They expect Republicans to struggle in Senate races in states Romney won. They also expect suburban Republican Congressional districts to fall like dominoes to their party. However, while optimistic on the surface, below the surface lurk numerous worries and concerns for Democrats starting with the President.
Since May the President’s job approval rating has not topped his disapproval rating. The numerous scandals the administration has faced: the IRS, Benghazi, and the NSA wiretapping scandal, has taken a toll on the President. In surveys the President has lost a significant chunk of trust among the public on his leadership. The latest problem the administration is facing is the delay of the Employer Mandate in Healthcare Reform. His party is increasingly worried about the law, the right wants him to scrap the entire law and the general public remains confused about the law, further damaging the President.
Historically no modern President has managed to see his party gain more than 8 seats in the House in a midterm. And this occurred at a time when Bill Clinton had approval ratings far better than Obama’s. Since his reelection the President has followed a historical norm, his support has slowly bled away until his approval is near its lowest level. Bush suffered the same fate in an identical fashion. Democrats concede in some races they will be hurt by Obama’s presence but for the most part they argue the President’s policies will help them in swing, suburban swing districts.
There are a few problems with this shortsighted assessment. First off, it ignores the fact that redistricting helped accelerate a demographic trend. Democrats have been consolidating in urban, metro districts whereas Republicans remain better distributed in swing and rural districts. Redistricting helped solidify this trend for the GOP. Second, only one poll done by left-leaning Democracy Corps (a decent pollster) has shown Democrats even poll well in top-target GOP districts.
The Democracy Corps survey finds that in Tier 1 districts (as in top targets) Democrats win a host of issues. In Tier 2 districts Republicans and Democratic tie on most major issues. But when the generic ballot test is analyzed it shows why Democrats will have trouble retaking the House. In Tier 1 districts the generic Republican leads by 2 points. In 2012 when Democrats gained 8 seats the Republican had a 1 pt lead in a similar survey. In Tier 2 districts the Republican leads by 6 points. This compares to 2012 when in a similar ballot test the GOP candidate led by 4 points. So the GOP has actually improved its position since 2012.
The counter-argument to this analysis would be that the Democratic Party and the President continue to have better favorable ratings than the GOP. But that was also true in 2010 and we saw how that turned out. We also saw this phenomenon play out in 2012 and even Democratic turnout could only net the party 8 seats. For this trend to change would likely require Presidential approval in the high 50’s or low 60’s. Considering the President is highly polarizing this is unlikely to happen by 2014.
Not all is lost for Democrats this cycle. They have recruited several strong challengers to Republican candidates in swing districts, voters continue to crave change in DC and the economy is on the mend (if part-time work counts as a mending economy). But retaking 17 seats would always be a tall order for the party in power. A lot can change in politics in over a year but for Democrats to take the house would require every card possible to fall their way. Right now, it is hard to see any scenario where this occurs.