What is this election year about? Is it jobs and the economy? Immigration and the border crisis? Obamacare? Women’s health issues? The Veterans Affairs scandal? The minimum wage? A world in turmoil? The image of House Republicans? Anger toward Washington? Power?
The signals are mixed. The playing field tilts toward the GOP, but will the normal patterns of midterm elections allow Republicans to achieve their overriding goal of taking control of the Senate? Is there something driving the year? Politicians aren’t sure.
“It feels a little like ’10,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who is coasting toward reelection. “Not as strong. . . . I get a huge sense of frustration about Washington. But to be honest, it doesn’t feel quite as red hot as it did in ’10. In ’10, the anger and frustration was palpable.”
Attention skips from one crisis to the next and politicians scramble to keep up. For virtually all of Obama’s presidency, jobs and the economy topped the list of voters’ concerns. Last week, Gallup reported that there has been a surge in concern about immigration — a tripling in the percentage of people who cite it as the most important issue facing the country, at 17 percent. A month ago, just 5 percent of Americans pointed to that issue as their top concern.
Next in line, at 16 percent, is dissatisfaction with governors, with Congress, with politicians, with poor leadership — a general grab bag holding all the complaints voiced for years about the way people think they are being governed. The economy was next, at 15 percent, and unemployment and jobs fourth, at 14 percent.
More Americans still name some aspect of the economy as the biggest issue in Gallup’s findings — 41 percent in the latest survey. But the fever is not as high as it has been. In February, 53 percent of Americans named at least one economic issue as the country’s biggest problem. In late 2011, it was 76 percent. In fact, mentions of the economy are at their lowest since January 2008.
The newfound concern about immigration puts politicians in both parties on edge, in part because polling doesn’t point toward any agreement on what to do. A recent Pew Research Center survey on immigration only adds to the confusion about what the real fears are about — and what politicians should do in response.
More people today say the passage of “significant new immigration legislation” is either important or extremely important, rising from 49 percent in February to 61 percent. Democrats haven’t changed their view on the matter in that time, but Republicans and independents have — significantly.
Does that mean there is more support for the kind of comprehensive immigration legislation that the Senate approved a year ago and that has been parked in the House ever since, legislation that called for a path to citizenship for those already here illegally? Hardly.
Republicans are less supportive of changing the law to allow those here illegally to gain some legal status than they were five months ago. Since February, support for legal status among Republicans has dropped 10 points, to 54 percent — still a majority but down noticeably. Among Republicans who back the tea party movement, support has dropped 15 points since February, to 41 percent.
At the National Governors Association meeting in Nashville this month, I asked state leaders to describe how they view this election year. In 2010, the answers would have been clear and consistent: concern about the economy and rising opposition to Obama’s leadership on health care and other issues. This time, nothing quite added up, other than a sense of frustration with leadership in Washington.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who is seeking another term, said this election will be mostly about the president’s performance.
“It is a midterm election in the second term of an unpopular president,” he said. “I think a lot of people are very frustrated and disappointed with this administration and with the lack of direction in foreign policy and the disaster of Obamacare. Consequently, I think it will be a bad election for the president’s party and a good election for the other party.”
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), who is not facing an election in November, said the campaign is about economic opportunity and economic mobility — or at least it should be. “Whether that’s how voters are hearing it at the moment, I can’t say,” he said. “But any candidate who isn’t running on it isn’t thinking correctly.”
Markell said the steady, if unspectacular, growth in jobs and the lowering in the unemployment rate should accrue to the Democrats’ favor. “You’ve got to start with the results,” he said. “Are things getting better that way? I think the answer to that is clearly yes.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who is in a tough reelection campaign, took it a step further. It’s “not just jobs and the economy,” he said. “Most voters who are persuadable and are still undecided are more often than not cynical. They don’t think politicians can actually get things done. And so they’re trying to figure out not just who is actually telling me something I believe in and like, but that I actually believe can get done.”
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who could have a serious challenge in the fall, sees an election year that he hopes could be a pivot point during an era of polarization and partisan conflict. “I’m hoping that this year is kind of the culmination and that after this year some of these things are going to begin to resolve themselves in a more constructive way,” he said.
The absence of an overriding issue of the kind that drove the elections of 2010 and 2006 (then, it was the war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush) has left each party with the same strategy.
Some party strategists have resigned themselves to the idea that there are so few truly persuadable voters this year that all their money and focus should go into techniques to energize their loyalists and to forget about the rest.
They are talking almost exclusively to their most ardent supporters, warning that the sky could fall if they don’t vote, in hopes of ratcheting up turnout just enough to win. Which is why Republicans are running ads about the Affordable Care Act and the Democrats are targeting unmarried women.
Are voters buying it? The Center for the Study of the American Electorate reported Monday that participation in the primaries this year points to what could be the lowest midterm primary turnout in history — with an 18 percent fall-off from 2010 so far. In 15 of 25 states covered in the report, turnout in the primary was at a historic low.
Given public cynicism about politicians and Washington, that’s hardly a surprise. Gallup’s analysis of public perceptions of Congress, which are still near historic lows, summed up the political year this way: “The mixture of disapproval and disappointment that so many Americans feel toward Congress could produce unpredictable results this fall.”
That may be the closest anyone comes to explaining where things stand four months before the election.