Jobs, Money, Scott Walker: Is It Time for Democrats to Panic?

Naureen Khan

Democrats are having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad June. But if it’s time to start panicking, most of them haven’t gotten the memo.

Despite a spate of negative news, Democrats nationwide, both publicly and privately, seem remarkably Zen about their party’s prospects in November and unwilling to take out any frustration on their man in the Oval Office just yet. “Is there any anxiety on our side? Yes,” said Jerry Crawford, a longtime Democratic activist in Iowa. “Should the other side be feeling at least as much anxiety? Yes. There’s plenty of concern everywhere for both sides.”

(VIDEO: Obama Ad Blames Congress on Jobs)

The announcement on Thursday that the Republican National Committee and Mitt Romney’s campaign outraised Democrats and the Obama campaign by $15 million came on top of a stinging rebuke in Wisconsin’s recall election, rising unemployment, a churning economic crisis abroad, and increasingly tight polls that appear to show Obama’s reelection prospects dimming.

Many strategists say that despite the perceived intensity of the presidential race--propelled by the deluge of money already being spent and the volume of ads pounding the airwaves--June is too soon to start fretting about general-election voters, particular the sliver of undecideds who will largely determine the election outcome but may not tune in until after Labor Day. They also point to the fact that in various swing regions of the country, the president’s numbers have stayed more or less stable.

Moreover, even if the GOP success in Wisconsin shifted the traditionally blue state to toss-up status, as an Obama campaign video made by manager Jim Messina seemed to acknowledge, they say the president's campaign has a variety of plausible routes to reach the 270 electoral votes required for a second term.

The May jobs report indicating a slowdown in the economic recovery sparked much speculation over whether Obama is doomed. Democrats say that’s premature. “It’s unfortunate that the jobs recovery is not stronger than it is and that’s cause for concern, but hopefully the trend will reverse and we’ll see an improvement in the jobs market--and that remains to be seen,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

(RELATED: Disappointing Jobs Report Doesn't Make Obama an Underdog)

Mark Nevins, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic political consultant, said there will be many more ups and downs for both campaigns before Election Day and it’s best not to put too much stock in a single data point. “In general, people feel pretty good about the president’s ability to compete with Mitt Romney’s record, so right now I’m not sensing a lot of anxiety,” he said. “On an x’s and o’s level, there’s always been a roadmap for Democrats and Obama, and I don’t know that the roadmap has changed.”

The sentiment was confirmed in National Journal’s latest Congressional Insiders poll, which asked if after last week’s disappointing jobs numbers, the president is now the underdog against Romney. Both Democratic and Republican Congressional Insiders overwhelmingly answered no, citing the advantages of incumbency and the ephemeral nature of one jobs report.

Democrats are less worried about Obama’s performance than they are about factors out of their control, such as how Republicans will handle crucial upcoming debates on jobs, spending, taxes, and the debt ceiling; the prospect of a global economic slowdown, which they know Obama cannot control and which could easily derail his hopes for a second term; and whether their party can stay competitive with Romney on fundraising front. The alarmism about money by Democrats whose job it is to raise it intensified this week after the GOP released its fundraising report and an avalanche of outside money helped Gov. Scott Walker keep his job in Wisconsin.

Messina warned potential donors that the Wisconsin recall--in which Democrats were outspent more than seven-to-one--was a “terrifying experiment” in the power of money. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, issued a tense statement calling the defeat “a wake-up call” for Democrats that they can’t win without aggressive--and expensive--TV advertising.

(RELATED: Has the Presidential Turning Point Arrived?)

In a neighboring Rust Belt state, Brian Rothenberg, executive director of the liberal group ProgressOhio, didn’t seem spooked. He wasn’t expecting anything less than a tight race in 2012. “We’ve been a bellwether state now every year except 1996. I don’t think either party can take Ohio lightly. You have to do the things within your control--organize and plan and do a good field campaign,” he said. “The pressure and panicky-ness that’s going on in Washington with an extremely tight race—that’s nothing new here in Ohio. That’s just the norm.”

Even in places where the president’s prospects look most endangered, some Democrats see a silver lining. “To me, the important thing is we’re still debating about what [Obama’s] chances are in North Carolina,” said Democratic consultant Gary Pearce, who has worked on campaigns in the state since the mid-1970s. Running Democrats against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 was “murderous,” he said. Now candidates at all levels are happy to piggyback off the formidable resources the Obama campaign has brought to the state. “They’re all hoping that the president is a tide that lifts all boats,” Pearce said.

With a few high-profile exceptions—including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona congressional candidate Ron Barber, who is running for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's seat—there hasn’t been a concerted effort on Democrats’ part to divorce themselves from the president or the national party message. Obama leads the polls in a number of swing states, buoyed in some by his decision to bail out the auto industry. “I always say, send the president more, we would love to see him tomorrow and the next day and the next day,” said Chris Redfern, Democratic Party chairman in Ohio, where liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown is in the fight of his political career against up-and-coming conservative star Josh Mandel. 

Democrats acknowledge that Obama has a nuanced sell to make to voters discouraged by how long economic misery has persisted. “It’s hard to get people to remember how bad things could’ve gotten—that’s a tough message to send,” said John Wertheim, a former Democratic Party official in New Mexico. Still, he said, there’s also a clear contrast to make with  Romney and the GOP vision. Wertheim's outlook, like those of other Democrats: “Cautiously optimistic.”