A new NBC/WSJ poll released on Wednesday pegged President Obama's approval rating at 41 percent, a new low for the second term. Yesterday, Bloomberg published a survey that had Obama's favorable ratings at 49 percent. The latest Fox News poll has Obama's approval at 38 percent, and another handful of polls has him at 43 percent. Regardless of which end of 40 percent more accurately captures the public's view of the presidency at this moment, a majority of the public seems to have less than stellar opinions about it.
Unsurprisingly, these polls have spawned a library's worth of articles wondering what this all means for 2014. The short answer: Presidential approval ratings are far less useful in predicting how midterm elections will pan out than other factors, but there's no doubt that the president has become an increasingly important factor in the midterms.
As elections become increasingly nationalized, with outside spenders infiltrating local airwaves with ads often aiming their rage at the White House far more than the candidate they're supposed to be bashing, voters increasingly substitute their opinions about the president for their opinions about the rest of American government. This election cycle (and the two election cycles that proceeded it) feature Republicans trying to nationalize the midterms by connecting Democratic legislators in vulnerable districts to Obamacare, the health-care law that conveniently shares the president's name. The polling so far seems to show that 2014 is bound to be just as much about national politics as 2010 -- if not more.
Forty-eight percent of respondents to the NBC/WSJ poll this week say they are less likely to support a candidate who supports the Obama administration. In 1994, 35 percent of people thought a representative's record on national issues was more important then their handling of issues in the district. This week, 44 percent of people believe national issues are a more important test for candidates.
In 2014, Democrats are trying to fight back with their own spin on nationalizing the election. There are traditionally few options for the party in power to nationalize an election in a way that benefits them. Trying to smear legislators from the opposite party writ large is like trying to scare voters with a giant marshmallow. It's hard to vote against an institution that doesn't have a single face. Americans have decided that Congress is a very bad thing, while simultaneously thinking very fond things about their representative or senator. Congressional approval ratings — which have been dismal for years — barely affect elections at all.
Democrats need a national villain that isn't in Congress, but is affiliated with Congress, in the same way that minority parties have connected presidents to the actions of individual legislators. Right now, Democrats are experimenting with the Koch brothers. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is rolling out a campaign claiming that the GOP is "addicted to Koch," launching ads in states where Americans for Prosperity have already sunk millions, like Alaska.
Even if the play works, Democrats are still at a disadvantage. During midterms, history shows us that Republicans are more likely to vote than Democrats. The Republican Party is older and whiter, and older and whiter people are more likely to turnout in the ugly duckling of election cycles. Everyone else mostly tunes out without a sexy presidential race to focus on.
In primaries and midterms, always notorious for low turnout, the voters most invested in changing the political landscape are also more likely to prioritize casting a ballot. Supporters of the party in power are more likely to be apathetically supportive of the status quo. According to Gallup, 79 percent of Democrats supported Obama In February, and that likely translates into lazy support for other political offices. Only 10 percent of Republicans support Obama. If that distaste holds until November, they'll have more of a reason to vote. That's more bad news for Democrats in 2014.
The president's party nearly always loses House seats during midterms anyway, barring national tragedy or a phenomenally robust economy.
Contrast that with the still sluggish economy, and it's clear it doesn't matter which poll accurately captures Obama's approval rating. Democrats are facing an uphill battle regardless. But -- silver lining -- it's hardly possible for Democrats to do much worse than they did in 2010, when Obama had an approval rating of 47 percent, according to NBC and the Wall Street Journal.
Also important to note: dwindling approval ratings are not the sole province of Obama. When George W. Bush was in the same point in his presidency, his Gallup approval rating was 36 percent. Nixon's was 26 percent. LBJ's was 49 percent. Truman's was 37 percent. And if Obama's doesn't improve between now and November, he's just following precedent. Only one president since the 1950s — Eisenhower in 1958 — had his job approval rise by more than three percentage points from March to October of a midterm year. Six presidents have seen nasty declines, ranging from four to 18 points.
Even if the president's low approval ratings have less of a bearing on election returns this November than other factors, they will have a significant effect on the politics between now and then, as well as the election's impact on the rest of Obama's term and the future of both parties. Obama has kept a safe distance from Democratic candidates who are worried that their election returns might have an inverse relationship to how involved the president is during the campaign. He'll keep fundraising — that's one thing he's always been better at than everyone else — and will keep pushing his economic equality agenda. Both of these things could reap quiet and much needed benefits for Democrats this weekend, and maybe help Obama's approval and legacy in the end, too.
Scott Clement contributed to this post.
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