Both Parties Need to Keep an Eye on Older Voters for 2014 Elections

Charlie Cook

This week, I had the opportunity to listen in on a briefing call led by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps and Page Gardner, founder and president of the Women’s Voices Women’s Vote Action Fund. Based on their findings from a recent survey by Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research that focused specifically on the women’s vote, four conclusions can be suggested.

First, while the Democratic Party and congressional Democrats boast brands still in disfavor with the public, the Republican Party’s and congressional Republicans’ brands are in much worse shape. In terms of party leaders, voters’ view of President Obama is barely lukewarm, but their attitude toward House Speaker John Boehner is downright chilly.

Second, a 2014 midterm-election electorate will not closely resemble the 2012 presidential electorate; it looks about 3 points more Republican than the turnout from last November.

Third, Democrats desperately need an unnaturally strong turnout among what Greenberg and Gardner call the “Rising American Electorate”—unmarried women, younger voters (ages 18-29), and minorities—to create a result anything like last year, when Democrats edged out Republicans in the national popular vote for Congress, 49.2 percent to 48.0 percent, with Democrats gaining eight seats in Congress.

Fourth, Democrats are closely watching the voting pattern of older Americans, a group that voted heavily Republican in the 2010 midterm and, to a lesser extent, in 2012; in March and July surveys, older voters’ responses are showing only about half the GOP margin they voted last November and about a quarter of the Republican margin in the 2010 midterm election. It’s unclear what exactly is going on, but this formerly strong Democratic group had moved pretty heavily against Democrats and Obama since he took office. Some signs indicate, however, this trend could be diminishing somewhat. And because older voters tend to vote in disproportionately higher numbers in midterm elections, any changes could be important.

The overall national survey was of 950 people who voted in last year’s presidential election, of whom 841 appeared to be likely 2014 midterm election voters. An over-sample of 200 additional unmarried women were interviewed to allow a closer examination of that subgroup, but their numbers were weighted to the appropriate level for the overall survey numbers. Fifty percent of respondents were reached on their cell phones.

The overall survey showed the Democratic Party with a net favorable rating of minus 4 points, 41 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable; while the Republican Party’s net rating was minus 17 points, 30 percent favorable to 47 percent unfavorable. Consistent with that result, “Democrats in Congress” scored a minus 11 points, 35 percent favorable to 46 percent unfavorable, while “Republicans in Congress” got just a 26 percent favorable, 49 percent unfavorable rating; 42 percent said they strongly disapprove, not quite double the percentage that approve, either strongly or only somewhat.

President Obama got a lukewarm rating of plus 6 points, 48 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable, while Boehner was at a dismal minus 18 points, 25 percent favorable to 43 percent unfavorable. Democrats shouldn’t gloat too much over this disparity, though, because midterm elections tend to be referenda on the president, not on the House speaker. In terms of job approval, 46 percent said they approve of Obama’s performance in office, down 2 points from a previous study in this series in March. In both studies his disapproval was at 49 percent.

While Democrats had a narrow 2-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot test among all voters, 44 percent to 42 percent, among those seen as most likely to vote next year, the electorate tilted slightly the other direction, to a 1-point edge for the GOP, 44 percent to 43 percent. It is important to note that the generic congressional ballot test question, for whatever reason, has a historic tilt of 2 or 3 points in favor of Democrats, so these numbers show that with a normal, predictable midterm electorate, Republicans can be expected to hold the House, as virtually all independent and objective analysts currently say.

One reason Democrats have to sweat turnout in 2014 is that many of the most marginal voters—those whose turnout is most problematic, who vote in lower numbers, and who need considerably more encouragement to vote than others—vote disproportionately Democratic. (Democratic victories in 2006 resulted more from independents swinging strongly in favor of Democrats than from some unusual change in midterm-election turnout dynamics.) Greenberg and Gardner advise Democrats to focus most closely on the Rising American Electorate. For example, among all voters, 46 percent approve and 49 percent disapprove of Obama; among unmarried women, voters ages 18-29, and minorities, Obama’s approval numbers are 60 percent—14 points higher—with a disapproval number of 35 percent, 14 points lower than among all voters.

The possibility of a shift among older voters is something to be watched carefully. Exit polls show that in the 2010 GOP wave election, seniors voted by a 21-point margin in favor of Republicans for Congress, 59 percent to 38 percent; in 2012, a better year for Democrats, seniors voted Republican by just a 12-point margin, 56 percent to 44 percent. A January poll by Greenberg’s firm showed a similar 11-point Republican margin, but a survey in March indicated the GOP advantage had dropped to only 6 points, 47 percent to 41 percent. This new survey pegged it at 5 points, 46 percent to 41 percent. It is far too early to point to some seismic shift among older voters, but this is something that should be watched over the next 15 months.

The summer of an odd-numbered year is usually too soon to start drawing conclusions about the political environment, but it is the time to start watching for patterns that might emerge as we get closer to the election year. It’s clear that both sides have a lot of work to do before they get an outcome they could really like—that either Democrats could win the House or Republicans could win the Senate.