Get Ready for the Status Quo

Charlie Cook

For months now, my theory has been that there were two competing narratives about what the political environment would be like for next year’s midterm elections and, for that matter, going into the 2016 presidential election. One narrative was that the challenges facing the Republican Party in 2012—problems with the party’s image in general and, very specifically, problems with minority, women, young, and self-described moderate voters—would simply flow into the next election cycle. The other narrative was that President Obama and Democrats would confront the same challenges that commonly face presidents and their party in second terms: The novelty has worn off, and they run out of freshness, focus, new ideas, and energy; as a result, the public becomes increasingly open to change. This phenomenon explains why the party in the White House has lost significant numbers of House and/or Senate seats in five of the six second-term, midterm elections and eventually lost the presidency after two terms in five of six elections. The exception to the former trend was in 1998, when the pattern was interrupted by the unpopular effort to impeach and remove President Clinton from office. The exception to the latter was in 1988 when voters opted to elevate Vice President George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis, giving Republicans three White House consecutive terms.

The problem with that theory is that, at least for now, both narratives seem to be happening simultaneously. The GOP’s brand is showing no sign of recovering from what led to the party’s thumping in 2012, and second-term fatigue does seem to be plaguing Democrats. We could be seeing an election in which the two forces cancel each other out, with little change in the House, and Republicans picking up three, four, or five Senate seats but still coming up short of the six they need to gain a majority. Under those circumstances, it might be questionable in 2016 whether the electorate would want a third Democratic term in the White house, but it is equally unclear whether voters would choose to turn the executive branch over to Republicans. At the very least, Americans might want to prepare themselves for Washington to muddle along for the next three years until the 2016 election.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 Americans including 300 respondents who have only cell phones, which was conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff on Sept. 5-8, 44 percent gave the Republican Party either “somewhat negative” or “very negative” ratings, with just 28 percent indicating either “very positive” or “somewhat positive” feelings toward the GOP; 27 percent weighed in as neutral. For Democrats, 38 percent chose one of the two negative ratings and 40 percent gave positive ratings; 22 percent were neutral.

Breaking that data down, for the Republican Party, 7 percent of respondents said they felt very positive, 21 percent said somewhat positive, 27 percent were neutral, 23 percent were somewhat negative, and 21 percent were very negative—a ratio of three “very negative” responses to each “very positive.” Democrats came in with 13 percent very positive, 27 percent somewhat positive, 22 percent neutral, 20 percent somewhat negative, and 18 percent very negative—the “very negatives” outnumbered the “very positives” 18 percent to 13 percent.

In recent months, there has been an ever-so-slight shift from very negative to somewhat negative for Republicans; their positive numbers have hardly moved. There has also been a parallel, narrow movement of very positive numbers for Democrats turning into somewhat positives. Bottom line: Democrats have exceedingly mediocre poll numbers while Republicans have terrible numbers.

Republicans are seeing virtually no improvement in the public’s perception of their national brand, and Obama is seeing the kind of deterioration in his approval numbers typical for presidents in their second terms. In the January and February NBC/WSJ polls, Obama had approvals of 52 percent and 50 percent, respectively, with disapprovals of 44 percent and 45 percent. The same pollsters’ surveys in August and September found approvals of 44 percent and 45 percent, with disapprovals of 48 percent and 50 percent. This trend is reflected in every major national poll. The bloom from his reelection is clearly coming off the rose, just as it almost always does. Democrats should also take note that while the Affordable Care Act is not yet radioactive, it is getting increasingly unpopular. It’s not as toxic as it was in 2010, but the potential is real, and opinion is not moving in the direction Democrats want to see.

On the generic congressional ballot test, Democrats edge out Republicans by 3 points, 46 percent to 43 percent, but that means less than appears, largely because this question historically and pretty consistently tilts about 3 points toward Democrats. Taking into account the tilt, the two parties stand almost even in terms of public preference for control of Congress.

Neither party should be happy with the numbers these days; each is seeing exactly what it didn’t want to see.