Monday, March 23, 2009

Should Democrats Worry About Obama Disconnect in 2010?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Don’t be surprised if you soon hear Democrats asserting that midterm elections are referendums on incumbent presidents and that as long as President Barack Obama’s numbers remain strong and the GOP brand remains weak, Democratic candidates running for high office next year have nothing to worry about.

In fact, some wise Democrats are concerned about a possible disconnect between the president’s popularity and voters’ views of Democratic candidates next year, especially for incumbents.

Their fear is that even if Obama remains personally popular, voters will not look kindly on their party’s candidates for Congress and governor if the economy remains weak and the public mood is sour and frightened. And even if the economy is showing signs of life, public concern over the deficit, taxes or cultural issues could drive turnout among voters wanting — you guessed it — change.

The concern is well-founded, and you don’t have to believe me to take this danger seriously.

Here is what noted Democratic pollster/strategist Stanley Greenberg wrote in his article “The Revolt Against Politics” in the Nov. 21, 1994, issue of “The Polling Report,” just two years into a Democratic president’s first term and only weeks after a midterm election in which the GOP gained more than 50 House seats and won control of the House for the first time since the 1950s:

“Voters this year voted against Democratic-dominated national politics that seemed corrupt, divisive and slow to address the needs of ordinary citizens. In that, they were voting their disappointment with the spectacle of a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress promising change, but seemingly unable to produce it. Many voted to change a government that spends too much and accomplishes too little, and to shift the public discourse away from big government solutions.”

Midterm elections are about anger, so if there isn’t any, incumbents of both parties do just fine. But if there is some — watch out. Blaming the previous administration works for six months or a year, but after that, it’s a much tougher sell.

In focus groups in Macomb County, Mich., and Riverside, Calif., Greenberg wrote in his article, “one hears an electorate acutely conscious that the Democrats came to power promising change, but produced only turmoil.”

It’s not hard to imagine some voters feeling that very same way next fall, especially if the Obama administration continues to spread itself so thin by dealing with an endless number of problems, yet solving none.

As for the issue of corruption that Greenberg referred to in 1994, it, too, could be a problem for Democrats next year.

Democratic operatives are still regurgitating old e-mails trying to hang Jack Abramoff around the necks of GOP candidates, but how will those same operatives deal with Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), John Murtha (Pa.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), all of whom have their own issues to deal with, to say nothing of the tax problems of Obama Cabinet nominees? Republicans aren’t likely to give Democrats a free pass on ethics nationally.

Later in his 1994 article, Greenberg made another crucial point that is certain to be applicable for 2010: “Democrats lost ground because of the composition of those who went to the polls.”

The makeup of the midterm electorate always differs from that in a presidential year, and next year’s electorate will be less sympathetic to Obama and Democrats. The 2010 electorate is likely to be less black than was the electorate of 2008, and it’s almost certain to be older. Given those factors, it’s also likely to be at least a bit more Republican.

Whites, who went for McCain by 55 percent to 43 percent last year, constituted 77 percent of the electorate in 2004 and only 74 percent in 2008, but they constituted 79 percent of the electorate in 2006. And people ages 18 to 29, Obama’s strongest age group last year, constituted 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 and 17 percent in 2004, yet a mere 12 percent in 2006.

One Democratic strategist told me recently that only Obama can effectively defend his performance and agenda next year, thereby boosting Democratic turnout, keeping Republicans on the defensive and saving some Democratic incumbents from defeat. That’s a reasonable strategy, but not one wholly without risk.

Given the president’s personal qualities and communication skills, it’s quite possible that his personal and job ratings will remain relatively high at least through the midterms, even if voters remain sour about the economy. Obama, after all, is a unique political figure, and many Americans will continue to admire him personally, no matter what happens.

But so far, Obama has stayed above the partisan fray, preferring to emphasize his efforts at bipartisanship and at changing the tone in Washington, D.C. If he throws himself completely into the 2010 elections and casts himself in more partisan hues, he could damage his own standing with voters, particularly those who find him appealing because he has not been excessively partisan. And he could damage the prospects of Democrats sitting in Republican House districts.

Right now, Democrats have everything going for them. But, if they read Greenberg’s 1994 article, they’ll likely conclude that they cannot afford to feel too comfortable about 2010. Midterm elections can have a dynamic all their own, and even a popular Barack Obama may not be enough to protect all Democratic candidates from voter anger.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 19, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.