The Obama Watch

Obama’s Numbers Worse News for Democrats

Polling well only with Democrats will cost them.

By 4.15.14

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Bad as Obama’s poll numbers are, they bode worse for Congressional Democrats. Obama is being buoyed by continued strong support from Democrat voters. The problem for Congressional Democrats is that November’s election outcome will not be determined in Democrat strongholds.

Recent Quinnipiac polling data (released April 2, of 1,578 registered voters nationwide, with a MOE of +/-2.5%) showed the president with a deeply negative rating on his handling of the economy: 40% approval and 55% disapproval. In his sixth year in office, and the fifth year after the recession, 74% of respondents still rated the economy as “not so good” to “poor” and 71% said it was staying the same or getting worse.

The administration’s defining issue, Obamacare, was viewed equally negatively. Forty-one percent of respondents supported it, while 55% opposed it. This is only slightly better than Quinnipiac’s all-time low of 38%-56% recorded in January.

This same slightly-better-than-worst-case scenario prevailed on several other issues. 

On overall job approval, Obama’s 42% approval (50% disapproval) — was just off his personal low of 38% set in December. On trustworthiness, his 48% rating (47% untrustworthy) was just above his personal low of 44% set in December. On his handling of health care, his 39% approval rating was not much above his personal low of 34% from last November. Finally on foreign policy, his negative 39% to 55% margin, was on net lower than his previous low (38%-53%) from last November.

These negatives are not stopping with Obama. Just 27% said they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supported Obamacare, versus 40% who would be less likely. Regarding Obama himself, 30% would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported the president, versus 42% who would be less likely.

Curiously however, when it came to which party the public wanted to control Congress, Democrats were neck-and-neck with Republicans — or slightly ahead. On the generic ballot question, Democrats led Republicans 40%-38%. When it came to control of the House, the Democrats led 46% to 45%, and when it came to preferred control of the Senate, the parties were tied.

Does this apparent disconnect mean that while Obama is hurting, his party is immune from the president’s problems? Hardly.

A look inside Obama’s poll numbers shows that while he long ago lost Republicans, and is now increasingly losing Independents, he still retains very strong Democrat support. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats approve of the way Obama is doing his job as president — compared to just 4% of Republicans and 37% of Independents. Seventy-seven percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s handling of the economy — versus just 5% of Republicans and 34% of Independents. And 78% of Democrats approve of the way he is handling health care — while just 3% of Republicans and 30% of Independents do. 

While helpful for Obama, Congressional Democrats have a two-fold problem.

First, the Democrat voters, on whom Obama relies for his support, dropped significantly in the 2010 midterms, when Congressional Democrats suffered major losses. Comparing 2010 and 2008 exit polling, Democrats fell as a percentage of the electorate from 40% in 2008 to 35% in 2010. 

While Democrats still respond for Obama in the polls, they proved unwilling to go to the polls for Congressional Democrats in 2010, when Obama was not on the ballot. 

Second, and equally important, while Obama is retaining strong support among Democrats, big majorities in this group will not be decisive in many of the battleground congressional races — even if they did come out strongly this November. The key Senate races are not in deep blue states, like California and New York, where Obama is certainly running up his Democrat support totals today. The same applies to swing House districts. 

Obama’s supporters can run up his totals in these states and districts and influence national polling numbers, but they will not affect outcomes in the key contests that will determine which party controls Congress for the next two years. 

While Obama is somewhat insulated from the consequences of his declining support among the broader public, Congressional Democrats are not. For Congressional Democrats, Obama can be a winner where it does not matter, but a liability where it does. 

It was not the tip that sank the Titanic, but the rest of the iceberg. Its visible smaller part was just the warning — just as the president’s poll numbers could be today. The Titanic’s problem was that by the time the tip was seen, the iceberg could not be avoided. Less than seven months from November’s elections, Congressional Democrats must hope that Obama’s declining poll numbers are not signaling the unavoidable to them. 

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.