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Why Democrats Shouldn't Be Celebrating

Associates at Community Health Center wear buttons reading "Get Obamacare" in October. Associates at Community Health Center wear buttons reading "Get Obamacare" in October. Jessica Hill/AP

There seemed to be a pop-the-champagne mood among Democrats after the Obama administration's announcement that 8 million Americans had signed up for health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats, desperate for good news, became euphoric at the suggestion that perhaps they had turned the corner on Obamacare, moving from it being a likely political liability to an asset, and that maybe the 2014 midterm elections might not be so bad. The fact that 8 million is less than 3 percent of the 313.9 million people in the United States seemed lost in the shuffle.

My impression at the time was that this sounded a bit too much like whistling past the graveyard. Now an array of new polling from a variety of sources suggests that Democrats have no reason to be encouraged at this point. Things still look pretty awful for the party. Especially meaningful to consider is that—no matter how bad the national poll numbers appear for Democrats—eight of their nine most vulnerable Senate seats this year are in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. Further, nine of the most competitive 11 Senate seats in both parties are in Romney states; the numbers in these states will likely be considerably worse than the national numbers.

An April 24-27 national poll for ABC News and The Washington Post gave Democrats a single-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot test, 45 percent to 44 percent. But given the lower turnout numbers in midterm elections, the likely-voter screen is far more relevant. And there, Republicans led by 5 points, 49 percent to 44 percent. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken at virtually the same time put the two parties dead even at 45 percent among all registered voters; presumably among likely voters, Republicans would have pulled ahead by a similar lead. This would suggest a very difficult environment for Democratic House and Senate candidates, particularly those in states and districts that lean heavily Republican to begin with.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll showed President Obama's approval rating dropping to a record low of 41 percent, with 52 percent disapproving. More telling, just 23 percent strongly approved of Obama's performance, while 40 percent strongly disapproved. On specific issue concerns, 42 percent approved of his handling of the economy, 54 percent disapproved; 20 percent strongly approved, 41 percent strongly disapproved. On handling the situation involving Russia and Ukraine, 34 percent approved, 46 percent disapproved; just 17 percent strongly approved, 31 percent strongly disapproved. Most telling, just 37 percent approved of Obama's handling of the "implementation of the new health care law," while 57 percent disapproved; 24 percent strongly approved, 46 percent strongly disapproved. In March, Obama's health care numbers improved a bit, but this month they returned to where they had been in February. To be fair, not all polls are finding record lows for Obama. The Gallup Poll, for example, has shown a modest improvement since last fall, to around 44 percent approval the past couple of weeks, but that's still pretty bad.

Just-released polling from the authoritative Kaiser Family Foundation showed no improvement in the public's perception of the Affordable Care Act. Forty-six percent of respondents said they had a generally unfavorable view of the law and 38 percent were generally favorable, identical to March's numbers. Both the March and April numbers were somewhat better than the dismal numbers in November and January, when the horrific launch of the exchanges dominated the news. Now, as things have settled down, 68 percent of Democrats view the new law favorably, and 76 percent of Republicans have the opposite point of view; independents come down 50 percent unfavorable, 37 percent favorable. When Kaiser pollsters gave respondents a choice between two points of view—one that "there have been so many problems since the new law's rollout that it's clear the law is not working as planned," the other that "there were some early problems that have been fixed and now the law is basically working as intended"—57 percent chose the not-working-as-planned view. Just 38 percent agreed with the now-fixed option.

One thing should worry Republicans: the question concerning what should be done now about health care reform. When given the choice between working to repeal the law and replacing it with something else versus working to improve the law, 58 percent chose working to improve it, while just 35 percent chose repeal and replace, the Republican argument. While the repeal-and-replace mantra pretty much sums up what the public has been hearing from the GOP and its candidates, too many Democratic members of Congress seem to hold the view that the ACA was the product of an immaculate conception and amounts to an infallible document, not to be tampered with. Defending the law isn't the same as trying to fix its shortcomings, and in that sense, both parties' key arguments seem off-base to swing voters.

The final blow for Democrats in terms of survey research this week was a new poll of 18-to-29-year-olds by the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The survey, the 25th in a series over the past 14 years, showed that interest among young voters is low and diminishing, and that conservative young voters are far more motivated to vote this year than their more liberal counterparts. Given the key role that younger voters, particularly young and single women, play in the Democratic core vote, the extent of the decrease among young voters directly hurts the Democrats' ability to hold onto their imperiled Senate majority and keep House losses to a minimum (winning a majority this year seems completely out of reach). The survey of 3,058 18-to-29-year-olds conducted online (this is the one age group where online polling currently makes sense to me) found that only 23 percent of Americans under 30 said they would "definitely be voting," with 44 percent of those who reported having voted for Romney saying they would definitely vote and just 35 percent of Obama voters saying they would. Self-identified conservatives were 10 points more likely to say they would definitely vote than were liberals.

Democrats should recork the champagne bottles. Someday, they may have a reason to open them, but it's pretty unlikely it will be this year.

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