By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A02
Democrats have no illusions about what they're up against this fall: a terrible economic climate, a sour electorate and a sizable enthusiasm gap.
There's little that President Obama and other Democrats can do between now and November to change the economy's trajectory, other than hope for better job numbers in September and October -- a dubious proposition given assessments about the sluggishness of the recovery.
Absent economic changes, the public's mood isn't likely to brighten much over the next few months. The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the economy has not hit bottom. Gallup found that 58 percent say the economy, jobs and unemployment are the major problems facing the country. No other issues come close.
That means Obama and the other Democrats face an uphill climb to convince voters that what they have done is working. Rather than trumpeting their legislative record, it appears likely that the Democrats' favored tactic will be claiming that Republicans would do worse.
There's no question that voters hold Republicans in even lower esteem than Democrats. Only one in four Americans has a positive view of the Republican Party today, according to the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. That is a record low.
But in a midterm election that will play out against the backdrop of a poor economy, that tactic may not help the Democrats much. If voters are as unhappy as they seem, they will take it out on the party in power, regardless of the qualms they might have about the Republicans.
This should sound familiar to Democrats. Their victories in 2006 had everything to do with dissatisfaction with then-President George W. Bush and very little to do with voters' feelings about the Democrats.
The same NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that shows Republicans at an ebb today has a table that indicates the record low for Democrats came in July 2006, four months before they took back the House and Senate.
Democratic leaders have moved predictably in recent days to paint the Republicans as scary and extreme. They and their allies have launched a campaign around the 75th anniversary of Social Security, asserting that if Republicans come back to power, they will destroy the government's retirement security program by turning it into a privatized system.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine has led a chorus of Democrats contending that Republicans have nominated a group of extremists whose views are far outside the mainstream of the country.
In some cases, that might be correct. Sharron Angle, the GOP's Senate candidate in Nevada, is Exhibit A. Angle, a "tea party" favorite, is challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and she has been backing away from some of her past statements. Reid's path to reelection is still treacherous, but somewhat less so because of Angle.
Democrats are trying to make Ken Buck, the anti-establishment Republican who won the Senate nomination in Colorado last week, into the latest extremist, although they might have a more difficult time pinning that label on him than on Angle or Paul.
Some of the Democrats' rhetoric is aimed at independent voters who might still be persuaded. Those independents were critical to Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, but every indicator shows they have defected. If they vote at all in November, more of them will vote Republican than Democrat.
Top Democratic strategists know there are limits to their efforts to change minds between now and November. Given the choice between persuasion and motivation, Democrats must depend on mobilization to get their most loyal voters to the polls. As Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern put it recently, "If you have 10 voters, it's better to concentrate on the seven you know."
The Democratic National Committee has launched a program aimed at mobilizing first-time voters who came out for Obama in 2008 but who have shown only limited enthusiasm about voting this year. The anti-Republican message might be most effective in motivating many of them.
Through Organizing for America (OFA), the offshoot of Obama's massive 2008 grass-roots network, Democrats are bombarding those 2008 first-timers with e-mails and following up with conversations at their doorsteps. On Aug. 28, they will kick off their fall push, in conjunction with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The goal is to knock on 400,000 doors that weekend in targeted states and congressional districts.
Democrats cannot afford a lethargic or disaffected base. The spat that erupted when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs criticized what he called "the professional left" for complaints about the president can only add to that disaffection. But it is less the professional left than ordinary progressive voters who hold the key to Democrats' hopes of saving some of their embattled incumbents in the fall.
Democratic officials say that they saw evidence in Colorado last week that their efforts are working. Sixty percent of those who turned out for the Democratic primary between Sen. Michael Bennet and former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff had either never voted in a primary or had voted in just one.
A quarter of those who took ballots for the primary were first-time voters in 2008. Party officials see those numbers as evidence that their efforts could pay dividends in November.
"One thing we're seeing we're encouraged by, and this always happens, is that the closer that you get to Election Day, the more energy and enthusiasm you see among volunteers," said Jeremy Bird, OFA's deputy national director. "In Colorado, as we got closer to the election, there was an exponential growth in volunteers."
Offsetting that observation is the reality that more Republicans than Democrats turned out for the Senate primaries. That seems to be one more sign that Democrats still have some way to go to close the enthusiasm gap and a reminder of the problems they face between now and November.