A Critical Few Weeks for Democrats? It Could Get Worse

by Stuart Rothenberg November 18, 2013 · 9:24 AM EST

No wonder some Democratic strategists are nervous about the next few weeks.

President Barack Obama’s job approval numbers have taken a dive in two recent polls, and party insiders fear that every other poll released in the foreseeable future will show that the rollout of the president’s health care law has been anything but a success — and has dramatically undermined the public’s confidence in him.

Maybe even more important, they worry that any weakening of the president’s standing will have a significant impact on Democrats’ chances to make House gains and hold the Senate.

The president’s job approval in polling conducted by Quinnipiac University fell from 45 percent in late September to just 39 percent in its Nov. 6-11 survey.

That trajectory generally echoes the drop in his standing uncovered by NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling. In that survey, Obama’s job approval rating was at 45 percent in early September, climbed to 47 percent during the government shutdown in early October and then sunk back to 42 percent in late October.

It would be surprising if other national surveys conducted over the next few weeks don’t show the same trend. The media’s reporting on each survey tends to have a cumulative impact, as if each poll is finding something new.

Of course, each is simply reporting on the same development, but the repeated drumbeat about the president’s weaker standing adds to the buzz about Obama’s problems. That’s exactly what happened to President George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina and the economy’s plunge undermined his standing.

A Nov. 8-11 automated survey in North Carolina by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Sen. Kay Hagan’s disapproval rate spiking in the state, along with the president’s. And the North Carolina Democrat’s position in the ballot test has weakened as well, compared with PPP’s Oct. 14-15 survey, which was conducted well into the shutdown of the federal government.

Some Democrats predict that public opinion changes in North Carolina will appear elsewhere. Democratic incumbents in swing (or Republican) districts and states surely are already trying to inoculate themselves by calling for changes in the health care law or, at the very least, complaining about the website’s problems and blaming either outside contractors or Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But it’s far from clear that those efforts will succeed in deflecting voter anger completely.

Long-time observers of politics know that an unpopular president during midterm elections almost always is an albatross around the neck of his party’s candidates for Congress, and Democratic hopefuls can only hope to minimize the damage, not avoid it completely, if Obama is unpopular a year from now.

Democratic vulnerability in the House is relatively modest, since so few House seats are competitive. But Democrats will have a hard time gaining any House seats if the president’s standing is hovering around the 40 percent mark, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will have to start worrying about net losses, not trying to maximize gains.

Over in the Senate, a damaged Obama could easily cost his party the Senate. It’s as simple as that. With an Obama job rating sitting around the 40 percent mark, it’s difficult to imagine Republican seats in Kentucky or Georgia falling to Democrats, and more difficult to imagine Democratic senators in Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas surviving. Even Democratic nominees in Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire could see their prospects change from good to uncertain.

Of course, it’s important to emphasize that opinion swings very quickly these days. Just one month ago, the Republican Party looked like a political punching bag. Polling was showing the GOP brand in free fall — it has not recovered — and Democrats were starting to get almost cocky about the midterms.

But the past month has proved that the somewhat confusing saying that I have repeated for years remains true: “Elections are about what elections are about.”

A month ago, many people talked as if the 2014 midterms might be a referendum on Republican intransigence, extremism and division. Now, many are suggesting that next year’s midterms will be about Obamacare and the president’s unwise statement that every American who likes his or her insurance will be able to keep it.

Of course, two weeks from now — or 10 months from now — the 2014 elections could be about something else. We just don’t know.

But that should not stop Democrats from worrying about the current narrative, which certainly is hurting the president’s standing and likely eroding Democratic poll numbers and optimism about the midterms. Tea party conservatives, led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, could possibly ride to Democrats’ rescue by doing something foolish again, but Democrats can’t count on that.

Somehow, Democrats must try to turn the developing Obama narrative back on the GOP. But at least until the health care website mess is solved, that seems unlikely.