For Democrats, This Isn’t Simply Another Chicken Little Story

March 23, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

For Democrats, the sky is falling, according to two national polls, one conducted by Peter Hart and Bill McInturff for NBC News/Wall Street Journal and the other by OnMessage Inc. for the Republican National Committee.

The results of the two surveys are very much in sync and present an increasingly disturbing picture for Democrats.

OnMessage’s March 9-11 survey found President Barack Obama’s job rating at 49 percent approve/47 percent disapprove, while the Hart/McInturff survey (March 11, 13-14) found it at 48 percent approve/47 percent disapprove.

Both found far more Americans believing the country was headed off on the wrong track (66 percent in OnMessage and 59 percent in Hart/McInturff) than in the right direction, and both found the once strong Democratic advantage in the generic ballot, which measures how people plan to vote in November (OnMessage) or which party they would like to control Congress after the next election (Hart/McInturff), has narrowed or disappeared.

The Hart/McInturff poll shows only 35 percent of respondents saying the February 2009 stimulus legislation was a good idea, while 42 percent said it was a bad idea.

Even worse for Democrats, by 61 percent to 30 percent, Americans now say it is better to have different parties controlling Congress and the presidency rather than to have one party controlling both branches — a significant increase in the “different parties” response compared to the October 2008 Hart/McInturff poll.

On specific issues, Democratic numbers have weakened dramatically, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling

When asked which party would do a better job dealing with health care, the Democrats’ 31-point advantage in July 2008 has slipped to a mere 9 points now. The party’s 16-point advantage in July 2008 on dealing with the economy has evaporated completely, and the parties are now even. And on taxes, the Democrats’ 1-point advantage in July 2008 has turned into an 11-point GOP advantage.

No matter what happens with the health care bill (and it may well have been passed by the House by the time you read this), the issue has severely damaged Democratic prospects for the fall.

Not surprisingly, the OnMessage survey shows Democratic support for the bill and Republican opposition, but it also shows 2-to-1 opposition from voters who identify themselves as undecided about which party they plan to support in the midterm elections. In question after question in the OnMessage poll, these “generic undecided voters” look like very much like Republican voters.

After scouring dozens of polls over the past couple of weeks, I have found only a few poll questions that can give Democrats much hope for November.

First, the Republican brand still stinks. Voters aren’t clamoring for Republicans to run anything in Washington, D.C., and polls continue to show that Americans still think that former President George W. Bush bears more of the responsibility for the nation’s economic pain than anyone else.

Unfortunately for Democrats, their own brand has fallen like a rock.

In April, almost a year ago, the Hart/McInturff poll found 45 percent of Americans with a positive view of the Democratic Party and 34 percent with a negative view. In the most recent Hart/McInturff survey, the Democratic Party’s positives have sunk to 37 percent and its negatives have risen to 43 percent. Yes, those numbers are slightly better than the GOP’s (31 percent positive/43 percent negative), but not enough to help Democrats in the fall.

As for Bush, he won’t be on the ballot or in the public’s consciousness in November, so Democrats will have to spend a great deal of time (and money) trying to make the midterms a referendum on the former president rather than on the sitting president. The chances that most Democratic candidates will succeed in that effort are exceedingly small.

Privately, many Democratic insiders acknowledge that the party’s outlook is increasingly bleak for the fall. Health care reform, once seen as a party strength, has turned into a significant liability, and few think the economy will turn around far enough or fast enough to help Democratic candidates in the midterm elections.

Even before this election cycle started, midterm election turnout trends put Democrats at something of a disadvantage. But now, every poll that I have seen suggests that Republicans are dramatically more motivated than are Democrats, which means a more conservative and Republican electorate this year than in 2008, as well as much-improved Republican prospects.

I have been hesitant — and I remain hesitant — to get too far in front of the election cycle, since circumstances can change and Democrats could well have an important financial advantage in the key post-Labor Day time period. But let’s be clear about what is developing: Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership have dug themselves into a deep and dangerous political hole, and the only question right now seems to be the severity of the drubbing.

As one smart Democratic strategist told me recently, “All of the elements are in place for a disaster like 1994. But it could be even worse.”