Is another Republican wave building?

November 27, 2013

One of these guys is going to be very happy on Election Night 2014 (Photo: EPA/Aude Guerrucci)

President Obama’s poll numbers are at record lows. The health care law that serves as the cornerstone of his domestic policy legacy is even more unpopular. And there are few chances to change the conversation among a skeptical public that isn’t happy with Washington.

Sound familiar? It should: The national political climate today is starting to resemble 2010, when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives by riding a wave of voter anger.

Wave elections are rare. Only a handful of times in the previous century has one party racked up big wins. Democrats won big handfuls of House seats in 1930, 1932, 1948, 1958, 1974, 2006 and 2008. Republicans won back more than 40 seats in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1966, 1994 and 2010. And with nearly a year to go before Election Day, voters’ moods can change dramatically.

But the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s crumbling support suggests another wave might be building. While voters usually punish a president’s party in at least one midterm election, they may be winding up to deliver another smack to President Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill.

Voter dislike of ObamaCare cost Democrats the House in 2010. It could cost them the Senate in 2014.

The poll numbers hint at the toll the Affordable Care Act has taken on the Democratic Party. A CNN/ORC International poll conducted November 18-20 shows 49 percent of registered voters favored a generic Republican candidate for Congress, compared with 47 percent who favored a Democratic candidate. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted November 6-11 shows the generic ballot tied, at 39 percent each.

Historically, Democrats have held an advantage of at least a few points on the generic ballot, even when election results are a wash: Democrats held a six-point edge just before Election Day 2000 and picked up a grand total of one seat. Democrats led Republicans by one point on the generic ballot just before the 2010 elections, when Republicans rode to a sweeping victory.

And there’s no sign that Obama will become more popular. Presidents who see their approval ratings dip so dramatically in the second term rarely see their numbers improve. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s approval ratings never recovered after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal (Nixon, of course, didn’t stick around to see just how far his ratings could fall). George W. Bush’s approval rating sank in the spring of 2005, and continued falling through the end of his term. Obama’s numbers are starting to resemble Bush’s trend lines.

For much of Obama’s tenure, even voters who say they disapproved of his job performance still retained a favorable impression of the president. That’s increasingly not the case: In the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey, conducted earlier this month, Obama’s unfavorable rating, 52 percent, tops his favorable rating, 46 percent. It’s only the second time [pdf] the number of unfavorable impressions outweighed the favorable ones.

Reaction to the bungled rollout of the health care law is overwhelmingly to blame. Already, the fallout has been evident: Public surveys in Virginia showed Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) leading Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) by wide margins in the wake of the government shutdown. But Cuccinelli made the final weeks of the race into a referendum on ObamaCare, and McAuliffe’s support began to erode. On Election Day, McAuliffe won by just 2.5 points, a narrower margin than even his internal polls showed. Another week, and Cuccinelli might be governor-elect.

Democrats will say the Republican Party is in even worse shape than they are, and they have a point: In the October Washington Post/ABC News poll, just 32 percent of voters said they had a favorable impression of the GOP, compared with 46 percent who had a favorable impression of the Democratic Party. And Republicans still have not articulated a clear governing vision for the country, even a year after failure to do so emerged as a central criticism of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.

But back in 2010, 40 percent told Post pollsters they viewed Republicans in a favorable light, 10 points lower than those who said they saw Democrats favorably. Republicans feigned a national platform, akin to the Contract With America, but their pitch to voters was more about what they were against — namely, Democrats and ObamaCare — than what they were for. Voters have backed the unpopular party with few ideas over the slightly-more-popular party with unpopular ideas before.

The stakes are highest for Democratic senators seeking re-election in red states, where the Affordable Care Act is even more widely despised than it is nationally. Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Alaska will face added headwinds unless the political climate changes.

And there aren’t many opportunities for Democrats to change that climate.

The one opportunity that Democrats do have lies in negotiations over the federal budget. October’s government shutdown gave Democrats a temporary advantage, and if Republican hardliners pursue the same path, they could hand Democrats an opening. But with Republican anger at Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and others who led the shutdown crusade at such pitched levels, it seems unlikely Republicans would repeat their political mistakes of this fall.

That leaves Democrats weighed down by an unpopular president and an unpopular (and malfunctioning) law, running in unfavorable terrain. A major political wave hasn’t developed yet, but a Republican sweep looks more likely now than it has since the waning weeks of the 2010 campaign.

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Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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