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Column: Americans Downbeat as Midterm Elections Loom


U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (L) (R-TN) waves as his supporters and supporters of his competitor State Rep. Joe Carr looks on, as he campaigns in Dickson, Tennessee Aug. 3, 2014.

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (L) (R-TN) waves as his supporters and supporters of his competitor State Rep. Joe Carr looks on, as he campaigns in Dickson, Tennessee Aug. 3, 2014.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll paints a grim portrait of the U.S. political landscape.

President Barack Obama’s approval is down to only 40 percent in the latest survey. Only 36 percent of those asked approve of his handling of foreign policy.

Republicans don’t fare much better.

Only 19 percent view them favorably while 54 percent have a negative view. Congressional Democrats got a favorable rating of 31 percent compared to 46 percent negative.

Other numbers in this survey suggest Americans are still suffering what you might call a “hangover” from the recession that ended five years ago.

Seventy-one percent of adults in the poll believe the country is on the wrong track, and 76 percent say they are not confident that their children will have a better life than they do, an all-time high for this particular survey.

Whichever party can address the long term economic anxieties is likely to have an advantage not only this November, but in the 2016 presidential election as well.

U.S. presidential elections present candidates and political parties their best opportunity to present a vision for the future, and the public usually rewards those who are best able to tap into the fears and hopes of American voters.

Obama seeks damage control

The bleak public outlook reflected in this latest poll comes with less than four months to go until the midterm congressional elections on November 4 and President Obama and his Democratic allies are scrambling to minimize expected losses.

The stakes for the president are huge. Loss of Senate control to Republicans for the final two years of Obama’s tenure would likely prevent him from doing anything substantial to burnish his presidential legacy before he leaves office.

And Republican control of both the House and Senate would ensure that political gridlock would remain with us at least through the 2016 presidential elections.

So President Obama has plenty of reason to hit the campaign trail for Democrats over the next few months.

During a recent speech in Kansas City, Missouri, Obama ramped up his rhetoric against Republicans in Congress in the wake of the latest failure by Congress to do anything substantive to deal with the wave of young immigrants on the U.S. southern border.

“Stop just hating all the time,” the president told the partisan crowd. “I know they’re not happy that I’m president but that’s okay. I got a couple of years left. C’mon, then you can be mad at the next president!”

Immigration as issue

It’s clear that election fever is setting in in Washington and you can expect mostly political wrangling when Congress returns after its summer recess in September. The recent inability of Congress to do much on the immigration issue is classic election-year politicking.

Both sides refused to budge. Democrats stood firm against Republican attempts to roll back a 2012 program that deferred deportations for many immigrants who had been brought into the country as children, a popular stand with the growing class of Hispanic voters that Democrats look to count on in future presidential elections.

Republican congressional leaders heeded conservative wishes to trim back the amount of money the Obama administration wants to deal with the border crisis. Conservatives want to avoid any moves that could be seen as supporting the president’s immigration policy.

Republicans also narrowly passed a bill before recess backed by Tea Party conservatives that would curtail the 2012 program that protects immigrants brought to the country as children.

For both parties in the end, politics triumphed over the need to address the crisis on the border.

Democrats will continue to try and mobilize Hispanic voters to take part in the November midterms, well aware that they are more likely to turn out in presidential election years. Republicans also point that most of the key Senate races this year, with the exception of Colorado, are in conservative-leaning states where Hispanic voters are less of a factor that they would be in other states.

Midterm battlegrounds

Most political analysts believe Republicans will hold or slightly expand their majority in the House of Representatives this year, where all 435 seats are at stake.

The real battle is for control of the Senate, where 36 of the 100 seats are being contested and Republicans need to gain six seats currently held by Democrats to claim a bare majority. Republicans appear to have an excellent chance because nine of the 12 states with the most competitive Senate races are states that Republican Mitt Romney won in 2012.

Republicans are already favored to win Democratic seats in South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia, which would get them halfway to their goal assuming Democrats don’t win any seats currently held by Republicans.

Democrats are hoping for possible upsets in two Republican-leaning states--Georgia and Kentucky, where Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell faces a credible Democratic challenger in Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The most intense Senate battlegrounds this year will be in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina. All are states with Senate Democratic incumbents facing strong challenges from Republicans.

If Republicans can pick off three Democratic incumbents from that list, combined with the other gains they are counting on, they will hold a majority in the Senate come next January, ensuring the two parties will have to either find a way to work together in the final two years of the Obama presidency or resort to gridlock and political paralysis.

But a growing number of pundits say that although Republicans are well-positioned to make gains in November, they don’t see the makings of a ‘tidal wave election’ like the one that propelled Republicans to recapture the House in 2010.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll revealed strong public dismay with both political parties, but also found that independent voters have yet to engage in this year’s elections and may stay home, making a wave election less likely.

University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato put it this way at a recent forum organized by Politico:

“This is the best map for Republicans since 1980,” he said. “They should run up a huge margin based on the conditions that ought to be present in a sixth year (of a president’s term) election. Ain’t happening so far. It’s just not happening.”

Most of the key Senate races remain quite close at the moment and a number of Democrats in so-called Republican ‘Red States’ are proving to be resilient and well-financed.

It’s likely that the battle for Senate control is likely to continue right up until Election Day, analysts say.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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