U.S. congressional elections are less than six months away but Democrats are already worried their voters will not be able to match the intensity of Republicans in November.
Light voter turnout is the norm in non-presidential election years and it’s already a concern for President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in 2014.
The president has been trying to whip up enthusiasm among his core supporters during some recent speeches around the country including a campaign fundraiser in California.
“We’re going to have to make sure that we are coming out with the same urgency and the same enthusiasm that we typically show during presidential years,” he said. “ That’s what we are going to need.”
Republicans are counting on dissatisfaction with the president and his signature health care law to drive their voters to the polls, and analyst Charlie Cook said, for the moment, that gives them the upper hand looking ahead to November.
Cook said one of the keys to recent midterm elections is that Republican voters are much more likely to turn out than Democrats.
Democrats, he said, do much better in presidential election years like 2008 and 2012.
“In a presidential election year the turnout is big, it’s diverse and it looks more or less like the country,” Cook said. “But in midterm elections when the turnout is smaller, it is whiter, it is more conservative, it’s more Republican. It’s just real different.”
Cook said that Democrats have been trying to turn around the public’s negative perception of the Obama health care law, known as the Affordable Care Act.
But Cook said don’t hold your breath on that happening anytime soon.
“Americans may grow to love the Affordable Care Act but it sure as heck is not likely to happen between now and November and I think the odds of that happening between now and 2016 are relatively small,” he said.
Democrats' motivational challenge
President Obama’s recent poll ratings have been among the lowest of his time in the White House.
Democrats are still recovering from the chaotic rollout of the health care law.
And Republicans seem energized to vote against the president and Obamacare in November.
All this adds up to a tall order for Democrats hoping to get voters out to the polls, said Democratic pollster and strategist Celinda Lake.
“Turnout is going to be a huge issue for the Democrats, particularly younger people who are very discouraged about the economy, unmarried women, African-Americans, Latinos, all that are core constituencies for us,” Lake said.
Lake said that the very groups the Democrats need to energize have not felt the improvement in the U.S. economy. She added that the recent focus on Ukraine and Russia has caused a drop in public approval of the president’s handling of foreign policy, which had long been a strength in public opinion surveys for the Obama White House.
Lake said Republicans will probably have a turnout advantage this year, especially with older white voters who tend to turn out in midterm elections more than other voting blocs.
In short, Lake said it looks like a “tough election cycle” for Democrats in November, though she believes Democrats can still hold on to their Senate majority by helping incumbents in key states.
Republicans excited but wary
Many Republicans are confident of their chances in November.
But they also know they have been disappointed in recent elections when their expectations fell short, especially about retaking control of the Senate.
In recent years, Tea Party-backed candidates have often failed in the general election, depriving Republicans of seats they otherwise would have won with more centrist candidates.
The battle between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party continues to play out this year with the establishment doing better so far.
The one exception was in Nebraska where Tea Party favorite and university president Ben Sasse won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate by defeating four other contenders.
In terms of overall election strategy for 2014, House Speaker John Boehner says he wants his party to remain focused on the president, the health care law and jobs and the economy in the months leading up to November.
“I think it takes some audacity to call for greater cooperation amongst nations on the economy when they won’t even focus on the jobs issues that we’ve got right here in America that need to be resolved,” he said.
Cook and other analysts predict Republicans will hold their majority in the House of Representatives and may even pick up a few seats in November.
Most of the attention will focus on the 36 Senate races where Republicans are favored to pick up seats currently held by Democrats.
The problem for Democrats is that several of the key Senate races are taking place in states where Republican Mitt Romney rolled up big victory margins in the 2012 presidential race, like Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Democrats have very few opportunities to win Republican seats.
Their best chance may come in Kentucky where veteran Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, faces a strong Democratic challenge from Stephanie Lundergan Grimes. And that is assuming McConnell beats back a primary challenge from Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin, who trails by a wide margin in recent polls.
Public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute says Republicans sense they have their best chance in years to win back control of the Senate.
“These Senate contests are such high stakes contests,” Bowman said. “The Republicans would desperately like to win control of the Senate and actually have a decent margin in the Senate in order to try to move some of their own issues along.”
All 435 House seats and 36 of the 100 Senate seats are at stake in November along with 36 state governorships.
Cook said if the Republicans succeed in holding all their own Senate seats they have an excellent chance to gain the six additional seats they need to claim a majority in the Senate next January.