Survey Gives Democrats 3 Reasons to Worry About Midterm Elections

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Surveys abound that highlight the great disapproval with which Americans view their government. When asked by Gallup in March to identify the “most important problem” facing the United States, survey respondents chose “dissatisfaction with government, Congress, politicians; poor leadership, corruption, abuse of power” after “unemployment, jobs” as the biggest issue. Eighteen percent of respondents picked poor leadership and government dissatisfaction as their biggest concern, which is down from the 33 percent of respondents who rated that issue as the most important problem in October.

It is no surprise that dissatisfaction has eased since October, as that month saw the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s online insurance marketplaces and the sixteen-day shutdown of the federal government after Congress failed to agree on a funding resolution. But the current level of political dissatisfaction — which is still higher than it was in September 2013 — is especially noteworthy because 2014 is a congressional midterm year, and the ballots cast this November could serve as a referendum on the current regime.

According to Gallup, President Barack Obama holds a job approval rating of just 41 percent, while 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing as president. Congress’s rating is even worse; with the 2014 midterms eight months away, 15 percent of Americans approve of the job the government’s legislative branch is doing. This percentage is slightly better than the 12 percent recorded in February, but it does extend a nearly steady string of sub-20 percent approval ratings for Congress that began in 2011.

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Source: Gallup

The widespread dissatisfaction is reflected in the March survey conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. And while such dismal approval numbers should indicate to the country’s politicians the partisan politics are not working, the results of the poll produced three numbers that should, and most likely will, cause the Democrat party particular concern ahead of the congressional elections.

1. The president’s approval rating: 41 percent

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Source: NBC-WSJ March poll

Like Gallup, the new NBC News/WSJ survey found that just 41 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing as president. While that percentage may be the lowest approval rating he has received from that particular poll, the figure is not an aberration; his approval rating has been falling for months, and many other surveys confirm that his efforts at governing and leading are not being judged highly by the American public. In addition to Gallup, a Bloomberg survey pinned his approval rating at 49 percent and a Fox News at 38 percent. Furthermore, the NBC News/WSJ survey data shows that only 43 percent approved of the job Obama was doing as president in both December 2013 and January 2014. The last time Obama’s job approval edged above 45 percent in that poll was in June 2013.

It may seem that how Americans judge the president would have very little bearing on congressional elections, even if it does speak to the condition of the American political system. However, data shows that there is in fact a correlation between presidential approval ratings and the success of his party in congressional elections. For example, when Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 election, President Bill Clinton’s job approval rating stood at 46 percent in the final Gallup poll conducted before Americans went to vote. Similarly, a Gallup survey conducted just before the 2006 midterm elections put George W. Bush’s approval rating at 38 percent, and Democrats gained thirty-one seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the Senate. Of course, it is important to remember that those approval ratings reflect opinions just before the election, and the United States is months away from the midterms. The question is whether Obama’s approval rating will improve in the next few months, but the prognosis is not good; according to the NBC News/WSJ poll, 56 percent of Americans disapprove of how he has handled the economy and 49 percent believe the Affordable Care Act is a bad idea.

2. The percentage of Americans who said national issues were paramount in upcoming elections: 44 percent

Forty-four percent of respondents to the NBC News/WSJ poll said that a “congressperson’s position on national issues” would be more important in deciding their votes than the “congressperson’s performance in taking care of problems in your district.” While it is also true that a majority of respondents — 51 percent — said that the district performance of a lawmaker would take precedence in determining their vote, the high number of voters who identified national issues as a priority in the upcoming elections is a sign that the congressional races could become nationalized.

Nationalized congressional elections are not likely a phenomenon that will benefit the Democrat party. With the GOP winning Florida’s closely-watched special congressional election on Wednesday, political analysts are debating whether the race contained any clues for November’s midterms and whether the Republicans are gaining momentum. Based on data from previous congressional elections that gained national importance, it is possible that a large number of seats will change hands this year. For example, in late October 2006 — just before that year’s midterm election — 39 percent of Americans said that national issues were of greater importance than problems facing the district, while an equal percentage said the reverse was true. Similarly, ahead of the 1994 election, 35 percent of Americans said national issues were paramount. In both those elections, the majority party lost a large number of seats.

It is also important to note that Republican Representative-elect David Jolly’s victory in Florida was helped by a negative ad campaign about the impact of Obamacare, which does not bode well for Democrats in November. Likely, the health care reform will play a major role in the midterms. Although in Florida, where 300,000 people were notified last fall that their insurance policies would be canceled in the new year for not meeting the reform’s requirements, the Affordable Care Act has been especially politicized.

3. The percentage of voters who said their choice of congressperson will be intended to signal their opposition to President Obama: 33.3 percent

Comparatively, the NBC News/WSJ poll found that just 24 percent of registered voters said they would be voting to send a signal of support for Obama. Forty-one percent said their vote will have no relation to their opinion on the president and his policies. In 2010, the enthusiasm gap was much closer, with 35 percent saying their vote was a way to show support for Obama.

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