The big debate in electoral politics these days is not whether the national environment will be bad for Democrats this November but rather how bad it will be.
A new chart put together by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, suggests things could be worse for Democrats than even recent wave elections from 1994 through 2010. (Yes, POS is a GOP polling firm but the data in the chart is taken from the NBC-Wall Street Journal April survey, which they, along with a Democratic firm, help to conduct.)
On virtually every measure of which way -- and how strong -- the winds are blowing at the moment, the 2014 election looks to be shaping up worse for Democrats than recent "shellacking" elections both parties have endured. Perhaps most important of those factors is presidential job approval, which has long correlated with gains (and losses) for his party in midterm elections. Obama's rating -- a -8 -- puts him in territory resembling where he stood in 2010 and not that far from George W. Bush's disastrous -18 score just prior to his party's disastrous 2006 election.
Now, before Democrats begin running for the exits because of this chart, a few caveats are in order.
1. The numbers used by POS to compare past elections to where we stand in 2014 are taken from NBC/WSJ polls conducted in October of the election year. Obviously, it's not October just yet. And that means that there is still time for Democrats to turn around -- or, perhaps more accurately, mitigate -- the factors that point to a very bad election for them. If, for example, President Obama's job approval ticked up into the high 40s, things could well look far better by this fall. "An improving economy and increased presidential approval would change things," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who added that Democrats should be "worried yes, panicked no."
2. In the House, there are simply not very many districts that are even marginally competitive. There are only nine seats currently held by a Democrat that Mitt Romney won in 2012. In short, the seats that incumbent-protection redistrictings in 2001 and 2011 haven't put out of the reach of one or the other side have already largely sorted themselves out. The 2010 election was the time when Republicans won virtually every seat that should have been theirs. It will be hard for them to make major gains even if the playing field is even more heavily tilted their way than it was four years ago.
3. In the Senate, as we have written, national environment matters far less than it does in House races. In their blog post, however, POS' Bill McInturff and Micah Roberts make an interesting counter argument. They write:
The president’s job approval among white voters is important to note because in a large number of incumbent GOP House seats the electorate will be 80% white or higher – and, of course, there are a number of key Senate races (AR, CO, IA, KY, MI, MT, & NH, etc.) where the percentage of white voters could be in the high-70’s or higher. Importantly, the president’s job approval among whites has been only at 35%, or lower, in every track we have done to date in 2014.
It's hard to debate that the traditional factors we rely on to predict what the national environment will look like appear to be relatively dire for Democrats. The real questions are: a) Can and will the environment get any better for Democrats between now and October? b) How much vulnerability do Democrats really carry in the House? and c) How many points does the national environment account for in Senate races in place like Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana?