Political crosswinds in 2014

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Editor’s note: The following is from Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.

Which way will the political winds be blowing in 2014 ? At this point, it looks more like a cross-wind, with both parties likely to face some resistance, but not the kind of crushing political headwinds faced by Republicans in 2006 or Democrats in 2010.

President Barack Obama’s job approval rating is not particularly strong. The latest Gallup tracking poll, pegged his approval rating at 46 percent. At this point in their second terms, Bill Clinton was at 58 percent and Ronald Reagan was at 63 percent.  Even so, this is par for the course for Obama. The president has had a consistently narrow “trading range”. Since 2009, Obama’s ratings have held between 46 percent at the low end and 52 percent at the high end.

Americans are more optimistic about the economy than they have been since Obama took office. Even so, a majority of Americans disapprove of the job Obama is doing on the economy. And, many remain wary about just how sustainable this economic recovery will be.  

While Congress may be universally unpopular, Democrats are seen more favorably than Republicans. In averaging the results of six polls taken this year, we find that a majority of Americans (54 percent) had an unfavorable view of the Republican party. Democrats weren’t beloved, but they averaged a 46 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable score. Even so, that favorability gap doesn’t translate to Democrats favor when it comes to perceptions about performance.  Andy Kohut of Pew Research writes: “Americans rate the parties about equally for dealing with the major problems such as the economy, immigration and gun control.”

An improving economy and a shrinking deficit means a much better political environment for Democratic candidates than they’ve had in the past two elections. But the impending implementation of Obamacare is likely to serve as a political drag on Democratic candidates. Polling has consistently shown the public to be more pessimistic than optimistic about the impact of Obamacare. The most recent Gallup found that just 22 percent of adults, including just 40 percent of Democrats, think the new health care law will make their family’s health care situation better.

With neither side getting much of a headwind (or tailwind), we’re likely to see more of a status-quo election than a “wave” election. And, in a second-term mid-term election, a status quo election has historically favored the party out of the White House.  It also means that structural issues – like the political make-up of a state or congressional district, the quality of the candidates, and the resources available to the campaigns – will be more important than ever.

The House 

Thanks in part to redistricting, the self-sorting of voters into like-minded communities, and three waves elections in a row (2006,2008, 2010), the House is pretty well “sorted out.” There aren’t all that many districts held by the “wrong” party:  just 17 Republicans sit in districts carried by Obama, and just 9 Democrats hold a seat carried by Mitt Romney. So, while Republicans have a narrow 17-seat majority, they have very little exposure to losses. Combine that with the Republicans’ built-in turnout advantage in midterms and the fact that Democrats currently have more vulnerable incumbents at risk (20 Democrats to 11 Republicans), and it means Republicans are more likely to gain seats than lose them in 2014. Our latest estimate:  Republicans would likely pick up two to seven seats.

The Senate

Republicans’ also enjoy a structural advantage in the Senate.  

For the second consecutive cycle, Democrats will defend more seats, 20 to 14 for Republicans. As important, some of Democrats’ most vulnerable seats are in states that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried inn 2012. This includes Alaska (Romney +14 points), Arkansas (+24 points), Louisiana (+17 points), Montana (+14 points), South Dakota (+18 points), and West Virginia (+27 points). Even 17 months before Election Day, these races are already very competitive, despite the fact that recruiting isn’t complete in a couple of them. By contrast, only one Republican-held seat – Maine – is in a state that Obama carried easily; he won the Pine Tree State by 15 points.

Democrats also have to defend more open seats than Republicans. So far, there are five open Democratic-held seats: Iowa, Michigan, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Romney carried three of the five. Today, there are just two Republican-held open seats – Georgia and Nebraska. Romney carried both easily.

Even so, the path to a Senate majority for the GOP is a narrow one. The stars don’t necessarily have to align for the GOP to win the six seats they need for a majority, but they can’t afford many errors either, particularly those that are self-inflicted.

In the last two election cycles, Republicans suffered enough self-inflicted errors to cost their party Senate seats. Such errors largely came in the form of contested primaries that produced nominees who were poorly positioned to win statewide general elections. This, combined with weak recruiting in several states in both 2010 and 2012, also cost Republicans two shots at the majority. As both parties gear up for 2014, primaries again threaten Republicans’ ability to win a majority, most specifically in states like Alaska and Georgia.

Even so, a worst case scenario for Republicans in 2014 would be to pick up just two or three seats. The more likely range for the GOP is a pick-up of 2-5 seats.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.