With the midterm elections less than six months away, it's a good time to take stock of things and even venture a few assumptions. But first, we need to acknowledge that when we talk about public attitudes, we are talking about human behavior and unexpected national events, which can cause close races to tip one way or the other, or to make less competitive contests even more so.
Having said that, it appears that the political environment, national economy, and issue agenda are unlikely to change significantly before November. At this point, this election is what it is, and it will be fought on terrain pretty much like what we see today.
Because midterm elections are more a referendum on the White House occupant than anything else, President Obama's 44 percent approval/51 percent disapproval ratings in the Gallup Poll for both April and May are deeply troubling for Democrats. Obama's Gallup approval numbers have risen 3 points since last fall, when they hit 41 percent with the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov. That improvement now seems to have leveled off, however, and his ratings are still in a bad place. They are comparable to his numbers just before the 2010 election, when Democrats lost 63 House and six Senate seats.
You could say that if Obama were a stock, he would have a very narrow trading range: His approval numbers are rarely better than 45 or 46 percent; equally rarely are these numbers worse than 41 or 40 percent. His disapproval numbers, meanwhile, are in the 50s. With Gallup's pollsters conducting more than 15,000 interviews each month, and with the firm using consistent methodology, it's a good poll to watch for trend data.
Six of the critical Democratic-held Senate seats up this year are in states that Mitt Romney carried by 14 points or more in 2012. It's safe to assume that Obama's job-approval ratings in these places are substantially lower than his national numbers.
If a midterm election is a referendum on anything other than the president, it is on the economy or, more accurately, the public's perception of the economy. The economy is expected to bounce back this quarter from its painful, weather-induced hiccup in the first quarter, when gross domestic product contracted by 1 percent.
The just-released Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of 54 top economists forecasts that the economy will grow at a 3.7 percent rate for the second quarter, then settle in at 3.1 percent in the third and fourth quarters. Unemployment, which was 6.7 percent in the first quarter, is expected to gradually decline to 6.4 percent in the second, 6.3 percent in the third, and 6.1 percent in the fourth.
Although the unemployment arrow is technically moving in the right direction, any jobless rate of 6 percent or higher isn't good. Indeed, recent polling showed that a strong majority of Americans believe we remain in a recession, even though the recession that began in December 2007 was declared officially over in June 2009. While various consumer-confidence ratings are showing numbers that are among the best since the onset of the recession in 2007, the readings are still at very low levels, and Americans are still highly anxious about the current state and future of the economy. This "three-steps-forward, two-steps-back" recovery means that few voters are in the mood to hand Obama or the Democrats trophies or ribbons for it.
In terms of the issue agenda, attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act have not significantly changed and are unlikely to between now and November. Obamacare overshadows any other specific issue; no improvement on the public's attitudes toward it is another tough blow to the party.
Still another problem that seems to be growing for Democrats is the general perception—whether someone agrees or disagrees with this administration on policy—that Obama officials lack competence. That on simple matters of execution—be it handling the economy, the launch of HealthCare.gov, the general administration of the ACA, or problems with the Veterans Administration—they seem like the gang that can't shoot straight. The steady erosion of confidence in the Obama administration further limits Democrats' ability to bounce back from negative events.
There was a point when voters hit the mute button and stopped listening to George H.W. Bush and then to his son George W. Bush. We now seem to have reached that point with Obama. Voters have thrown up their hands and lost hope that things will get any better.