Prominent Democratic strategists are growing increasingly nervous that the national political environment is not only bad for their side but is moving in the wrong direction in the final days before the election, a trend that could not only cost them control of the Senate but also visit double-digit House losses on the party.
"The environment has settled and it's bad," said one senior Democratic party operative closely monitoring the party's prospects this fall. The source added that Democratic candidates' numbers among independents and seniors — two critically important voting blocs — have begun to erode; "they are just not as friendly to us as they once were," the source explained.
In conversations Wednesday with more than a dozen Democratic strategists deeply involved in this campaign — a few who were willing to speak on the record, a majority who were not — there was a widespread pessimism about the party's chances Nov. 4. "Challenging," acknowledged Ali Lapp, executive director of the House Majority PAC, a super PAC spending millions on ads to promote House Democrats. "It's a very challenging environment," agreed Penny Lee, a Democratic lobbyist and longtime political aide to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. "Unsettled," offered Democratic pollster Fred Yang. "The trends are not good," said Steve Rosenthal, the veteran Democratic and labor strategist.
There were lots (and lots) of reasons given for the difficulties facing Democrats. The Senate map. The historic trends of second term, midterm elections — aka the "six-year itch." Voter apathy. But the one factor that virtually every person I talked to cited as the biggest reason for the party's current predicament was President Obama.
"This off-year election has become almost entirely a referendum on the president," said one Democratic consultant involved in a number of closely-fought congressional races. "It's not just anger at [the Affordable Care Act]. He has become, in my opinion wrongly, the symbol of dysfunction in Washington. That has led to a demoralized Democratic base, energized Republicans and those in the middle have an easy way of venting their frustration, and that is to punish the president's party."
"It is not ALL Obama but a lot of it is," said another Democratic strategist knee-deep in the 2014 midterms and granted anonymity to speak candidly. "[People] are very upset with government and people think Democrats are in charge, so they are taking it out on Democrats more than Republicans."
Asked for a single word to describe why this election was looking increasingly bleak for Democrats, one consultant offered "Obama."
Erik Smith, a veteran Democratic operative, pushed back on the "it's all Obama's fault" logic, however.
"President Obama isn’t the cause of this bad environment, but how candidates have chosen to handle his lower approval ratings has often compounded their problems," Smith said. "While candidates may want to distance themselves from the incumbent president in their advertising and public statements, the president’s base is still strong and committed to him and as a result that mixed message dampens their enthusiasm for the candidate. In the end, these Democratic candidates fail to win new support and lose traditional support at the same time by trying to play it too politically." (Make sure to read Karen Tumulty's terrific piece on the wisdom — or lack thereof — of Democrats running from Obama.)
It's also worth noting that while there was significant pessimism among the people we talked to, roughly half of them held out hope that Democrats could still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat — noting, rightly, that races all over the country remain very close despite the eroding environment. (Ten Senate races are within five points, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.)
"Given the hand that 2014 dealt us, it’s pretty impressive that so many races are still close enough to win on turnout," said Greg Speed, president of America Votes, a Democratic-aligned group. Added Bill Burton, a veteran of the Obama White House: "I think it’s amazing that we're still even talking about states like Georgia and Kansas in an environment that is this bad."
True enough. And the unsettled nature of the electorate could well mean we are in for a few more twists and turns before next Tuesday. "It’s time to stop trying to read the tea leaves," said Steve Rosenthal, summing up the chaos. "In five days the voters will speak."
Yes, they will. But as of today, the prevailing feeling among the Democratic political class is one of doom and gloom.