By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; 12:18 AM
Two years can change just about everything in politics.
In the 2008 campaign, Democrats running for the Senate did anything - and everything - to associate themselves with then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
With about two months remaining in the 2010 campaign season, however, Obama's political fortunes have dipped in a handful of states holding competitive Senate races - complicating the winning math for Democratic candidates already struggling with a pessimistic electorate that remains deeply concerned about the country's direction.
"In midterm elections, the presidential numbers serve like a weight on scale," said one senior Democratic consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the playing field. "The heavier [or worse] the numbers, the harder it is for any person in the party to get back to even keel."
Recent polls on Obama conducted for many of the nation's top Senate races show that those who disapprove of the job the president is doing outweigh those who approve.
Take Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio and Indiana - four states that Obama won by 10, nine, five and one percentage points, respectively, in 2008.
In each of those states, his job-approval numbers have taken a hit. A Franklin & Marshall poll released in Pennsylvania last week showed that just more than one in three (37 percent) rate the job the president has done as "excellent" or "good." Internal Democratic polls released over the past week put Obama's job-approval score at 42 percent (in Colorado) and 38 percent (in Indiana). In Ohio, a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that 45 percent approved of the job he was doing, while 49 percent disapproved.
Or take a trio of potential Democratic Senate pickup chances, in Kentucky, Missouri and Florida. (Obama lost Kentucky by 16 percentage points and Missouri by less than one, but he won Florida by three.)
In Kentucky, a Braun Research poll pegged Obama's job-approval rating at 40 percent while a Mason-Dixon poll in Missouri showed him at 34 percent. The news is best in Florida, where 47 approved and an equal 47 disapproved in a recent Quinnipiac survey.
White House allies argue that in the handful of Senate races widely regarded as those that Republicans must win to take back the chamber, the president isn't a neutral or negative force but a positive one.
In California, where Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) faces a tough reelection fight against former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina (R), a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Obama's approval exceeding his disapproval by 18 points. And in Wisconsin, where Sen. Russell Feingold (D) and Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson (R) are squaring off, a University of Wisconsin survey showed Obama's job-approval rating at 49 percent, with 46 percent disapproving.
Washington state has had little reliable polling recently, but it's hard to imagine that Obama isn't an asset for Sen. Patty Murray (D) in her race against former state senator Dino Rossi (R).
Democratic operatives note that although Obama's job-approval numbers are nowhere near what they would like them to be 64 days before the midterm elections, many of the polls that show the president struggling also show tight Senate contests.
"It doesn't help," acknowledged one senior Democrat closely monitoring the Senate races. "On the other hand, it doesn't hurt as much as the other side will argue it does if the Senate candidate is running a good campaign and is well funded."
Historically, Senate races tend to be less heavily influenced by the direction - and strength - of the national political winds than House races in which the candidates are less well known to the electorate and on which the national parties typically spend less money.
Still, although Obama's low job-approval ratings in some key Senate seats probably won't be why any Democrat loses, the president's numbers could make a difference at the margins - where a handful of races are typically decided. In 2006, for example, three Democrats - Claire McCaskill (Mo.), James Webb (Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) - won by less than 50,000 votes. Those victories were attributable, in no small part, to a national political environment that was decidedly favorable to their side.
In the broad view, however, it's clear that Democratic Senate hopefuls will need to cope with a president who is no longer a clear political asset and an electorate that thinks things have gone badly off track.
"Obama's numbers certainly don't help, but the larger drag on these candidates is the wrong track numbers," said Democratic consultant Carter Eskew. "Those are in the kill zone for incumbents and make life very hard for all Democrats."