It has become commonplace to describe the midterm political contests as the Seinfeld election — a campaign about nothing. In fact, that’s not correct. This is an election that is still very much about how people view President Obama.
Two years after winning reelection, Obama is a muted force on the campaign trail — to the extent that he is even on the campaign trail. He is limited in where he can travel, constrained in how he speaks about what has been one of the biggest issues of his presidency — the economy — and struggling to ignite the passions of the Democratic base in a year when turnout is so critical.
Doug Rivers, a Stanford University professor and one of the pioneers of Internet-based polling, offered a succinct description of this campaign year at a conference hosted by the Hoover Institution last week. “There is no overriding issue other than that Republicans don’t like Obama and Democrats are lukewarm about Obama,” he said.
The Gallup organization produced a fresh analysis on Friday that underscores that point. Many more registered voters see this election as a way to register disapproval of the president as those who say they want to use their vote to offer a sign of support. What Gallup called the “Obama factor” is every bit as big as it was in 2010 and split almost identically pro and con.
In the latest numbers, 32 percent of registered voters said their choice of candidate in November would be a way to send a message of opposition to the president, while 20 percent said it would be a way to send a message of support. The remainder said their choice of candidates would not be a way to send any message about the president.
The 12-point difference is comparable to what it was four years ago, when Republicans made historic gains in the House. In 2010, 30 percent of registered voters said they would send a message of opposition to Obama, and 22 percent said they would vote to send a message of support for the president.
The Gallup numbers also reinforce what Rivers said about the passions of Republicans and tepidness of Democrats. Among Republicans, 58 percent said they would be sending a message of opposition to the president, while just 38 percent of Democrats said they would use the election to send a message of support for Obama. That Democratic number is lower by 7 percentage points than it was in 2010.
Gallup began asking this question in 1998. In that midterm election and in 2002, there were more registered voters who said they would send a message of support for the sitting president than opposition — Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002. In both cases, the president’s party actually gained seats in midterm elections, defying historical trends.
Today, Obama looks more like Bush of 2006, when Democrats took back the House: The numbers for Obama are almost identical overall, and the breakdowns by party are as well.
There is ample evidence of the box in which Obama and the Democrats find themselves, including the latest statistics on the economy. On Friday, the Labor Department said that the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.9 percent, the first time since the economic collapse of 2008 that the jobless rate was below 6 percent.
In his weekly Saturday morning address, Obama noted that businesses have added more than 10 million jobs over the past 55 months, marking the longest period of uninterrupted private-sector job growth in history. The economy is on a pace, he said, to create more jobs this year than in any year since the heady days of the tech-fueled boom of the 1990s.
All of that should cheer Democrats who head into the final month of the midterm election on the defensive. Headlines in The Washington Post and the New York Times offered a different interpretation of the seeming good news.
“Economy could hurt Democrats in elections,” The Post’s Web headline read Saturday morning. The subhead on the Times’s story online said: “A surprisingly rosy jobs report appeared to be too little, too late for Democrats in struggling midterm campaigns.
There are many reasons why. One is that any good news over the past six years has been set against a backdrop of economic anxiety that makes it almost impossible for the president to trumpet the gains without having to acknowledge that many Americans feel those gains have not touched them.
Labor force participation has fallen. Many of the new jobs don’t pay well. Income gains since 2008 have been concentrated in the upper percentiles. Overall wage growth, which has ticked up recently, still has been mostly stagnant for two decades.
Obama must be as constrained in how he talks about the economy as he is in where he can go and talk about it, as evidenced by what he said in a speech at Northwestern University on Thursday:
“It is indisputable that our economy is stronger today than when I took office,” he said. “By every economic measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office. At the same time, it’s also indisputable that millions of Americans don’t yet feel enough of the benefits of a growing economy where it matters most — and that’s in their own lives.”
So even at a moment of good news, Obama is on the defensive. His approval ratings have remained low for a sitting president in a midterm election. His economic approval ratings have not improved. Democrats may try to run from him, but it may do little good.
So far this fall, Obama hasn’t done any public campaigning with Democratic candidates. He continues to raise money for his party and for candidates, but he’s not doing much else, at least yet.
When he went to Chicago, he attended a closed fundraiser for embattled Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) but did not campaign with him. A White House official said the fundraiser was added after the non-campaign trip to Northwestern had been scheduled.
Public campaigning with candidates will come later, as early voting begins and intensive get-out-the-vote operations kick in. In some states, Obama still may be able to energize the base of his party, but he lacks the potency of two years ago.
Regardless of where he chooses to appear, he will be ever present in campaigns everywhere. Even he knows that. On Thursday, after laying out the economic choices, he put it this way: “Now, I am not on the ballot this fall . . . but make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot — every single one of them.”
That comment may have rattled nervous Democrats looking to keep their distance from the president, but it is the reality they know they must live with for the next four weeks. That’s why this midterm is not about nothing.