The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot this fall. Yes, he is hurting Democrats’ chances.

S President Barack Obama is photographed through an Oval Office window as he speaks on the phone with King Abdallah Abd al Aziz of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 10 September 2014. EPA/RON SACHS / POOL

Here's a sample of Scott Brown's victory speech following his primary win in New Hampshire on Tuesday night: "Nobody in the Senate is more invested in the policies and the failures of Barack Obama than Jeanne Shaheen. They campaigned together in our state six years ago. They were elected on the same day. And from that day to this, she has voted for the failed Obama agenda more than 99 percent of the time."

Brown isn't the only one rolling out the "voted with Obama [a whole heck of a lot]" line. Cory Gardner is attacking Colorado Sen. Mark Udall for voting with Obama 99 percent of the time.  Bill Cassidy is hitting Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu for voting with Obama 97 percent of the time. Ditto Thom Tillis against North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan.

The strategy is simple: President Obama is not popular.  The closer you can link a Democrat to Obama, the better.

So, I was somewhat surprised when I was looking through the new Washington Post-ABC News poll and found this question (and response): "Will one reason for your vote for Congress be to express support for Obama, opposition to Obama or is Obama not a factor in your choice?" A majority -- 54 percent -- said Obama played no role in their choice while 27 percent said their vote would be to show opposition to Obama and 19 percent said it would be to show support for him.

But, dig a little deeper into those numbers and you begin to understand better how -- and why -- Obama is a factor, and a negative one, for Democrats trying to hold the line in the Senate and House.

Take a look at how partisans react to that question.  Sixty two percent of self-identified Republicans said their vote would be in opposition to Obama while 36 percent said he wasn't a factor and 2 percent said it would be a vote in support of him.  Contrast that to Democrats -- 52 percent said Obama wasn't a factor, 42 percent said that their vote would be in support of him and five percent said their vote would be in opposition to the president.

The key gap to look at is the 20-point difference between Republicans who say that their vote is to express opposition to Obama and Democrats who it is to show support for him.  Put simply: Republicans are significantly more motivated to turn out and send Obama a negative message than Democrats are to send him a positive one.  Obama is a major motivating factor for a majority of Republicans and isn't for the majority of Democrats.

"He is THE factor for Democrats," said one Democratic pollster who has conducted a series of polls in swing House races and Senate seats of late. "Not necessarily his current rating, but the inability to move upward as the election gets closer."

History suggests a very close correlation between a president's job approval and how his party does -- even when he is not on the ballot.

Two charts tell that story.

The first is from Real Clear Politics' Sean Trende showing that the lower a president's approval the more losses his side incurs.

As WaPo pollster Scott Clement explains: "[Obama's poll numbers] can provide a convenient starting point for making decisions at the ballot box (like Obama and Democrats? Vote Democratic). The long-running decrease in ticket-splitting raises the stakes for views of the president and national party – he has greater potential to lift and sink his fellow partisans than before."

So, no, President Obama isn't on the ballot. But he -- and his approval ratings -- matter a whole heck of a lot to the Democrats who are.

Loading...