WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s public approval ratings have hit new lows in recent weeks, sparking fears among Democrats about their chances in the November midterm congressional elections. Historically speaking, two-term presidents experience losses in midterm congressional elections. It’s usually not a question of if, but how many? This year the stakes are especially high because Republicans believe they have an excellent chance of wresting control of the Senate from Democrats, which would have enormous political implications for the final two years of the Obama presidency.
It’s still too early to know what impact the crisis in Ukraine is having on Obama’s ratings. His recent drop in the polls seems tied to concerns about the economy and lingering problems with his signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act. Republicans haven’t been shy about hammering the president on his handling of Ukraine, feeding a narrative they have been pushing for some time now about what they see as the general weakness of the Obama foreign policy approach and a negative impact on the image of the U.S. abroad.
Election year worries
The recent results of a special congressional election in Florida excited Republicans and sparked new worries among Democrats about what may transpire in November. Republican David Jolly won a narrow victory over Democrat Alex Sink and his victory confirmed for some the Republican strategy of focusing in on the unpopularity of the health care law. Democrats were hoping their strategy of focusing on fixes to the controversial law would be enough to neutralize it in competitive races this year, but the Florida race seems to suggest that may not be enough.
Democrats are also worried about the president’s stubbornly weak approval ratings, hovering in most surveys in the low 40-percent area. That is usually an indicator of trouble for the president’s party in competitive midterm races and it also means the White House will be limiting Obama’s campaign appearances in states and congressional districts where Republicans are strong. In short, if Democrats are to keep their majority in the Senate they will probably want to keep the president out of those Red-leaning Republican states where Democratic candidates will be looking to put some distance between themselves and the president. Carroll Doherty is Director of Political Research at the Pew Research Center in Washington. “He is at best in the low 40 percent range for job approval, not a good sign for an incumbent president in the sixth year who wants to gain seats in Congress.”
Congressional Democrats have taken note of the president’s weakening approval ratings and are already calibrating what it may mean for their re-election hopes in November, says analyst John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It is the area where presidents worry and they worry about midterm elections and that their popularity will affect the party and ultimately hurt his majority in the Congress.”
Voter turnout key factor in November
Another lesson from the recent Florida race is who turned out to vote. Democrats did not get their supporters out to the polls as they had hoped while Republicans were able to do a better job of firing up their base, in large part because of opposition to Obamacare. Most experts already see a Republican advantage in this year’s midterm elections because the voter turnout in non-presidential election years tends to skew toward older white voters, a strong constituency for the Republicans. The younger, more female and more ethnically diverse electorate that helped to elect Barack Obama twice in 2008 and 2012 is not likely to show up in similar strength this year, and that has Democrats scrambling to find ways to motivate their core supporters.
Carroll Doherty with Pew says Democrats have a chance to be competitive in November if they can find a way to somehow cut into the Republican advantage on turnout, according to the latest research he’s seen. “What it is showing is that there is no wave election for the Republicans or the Democrats at this point. It looks pretty even, which means that the turnout is going to be a big factor and Republicans in midterms do pretty well in turnout.”
Most experts now say the Democrats have a tough slog to try to retake the House. They would need a pickup of 17 seats in the 435-seat House and that is not looking very likely. The real battle remains the Senate where a gain of six Republican seats would give them a narrow majority in the Senate. Republican control of both the House and the Senate in the final two years of the Obama presidency would likely be a recipe for even tighter gridlock than we have seen in the past four years. Fortier says even if Republicans only come close to winning control of the Senate, the die may be cast for the remainder of the Obama presidency. “I think either way we are facing divided government for the rest of President Obama’s term and that means either a lot of conflict or an occasional issue where they can find some sort of compromise.”
One issue for hoped-for compromise is immigration reform, something even some Republicans could help them expand their base of support beyond older white voters. But so far it’s unclear if Republicans are willing to take a chance on an issue that could alienate their conservative supporters during an election year.