This Is an Economy Election—And That’s Terrible News for Democrats

Beneath the headlines of the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal survey are some key findings about the voter attitudes that will define the terrain of this year’s midterm election. For this Democrat, at least, they are deeply disquieting.

Three sets of findings jumped out at me. The first addresses the kind of election this will be.

  • When asked if their representative’s positions on national issues or performance on local issues would be more important in influencing their vote for congress, 46 percent or respondents said national and 41 said percent local. In 2006, voters split 40 to 36; in 1994, 35 to 51.
  • When asked a follow-up question about the relative importance of domestic issues such as the economy, health care, and immigration versus international issues such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and terrorism, 73 percent said domestic and 12 percent said international, while 15 percent rated them of equal importance. In 2006, the corresponding breakdown was 43/28/28.

In short, the survey supports what most observers have long believed: to a greater extent than usual, national issues will shape this year’s midterm, and of those issues, domestic issues are unusually dominant. (We know from numerous other polls that among domestic issues, concerns about the economy swamp everything else.) 

In this context, we proceed to a second set of findings, which concern President Obama and the economy.

  • Compared to when Barack Obama became president, only 31 percent of respondents think the country is better off, while 40 percent think it’s worse off and 28 percent believe it’s about the same.
  • Only 37 percent are very or quite confident that Obama has the right set of goals and policies to improve the economy, versus 63 percent who are only somewhat or not at all confident. The represents a significant deterioration from June 2009, when “very” or “quite confident” totaled 46 percent and “only somewhat” or “not at all” stood at 53 percent.
  • The public’s evaluation of Obama’s handling of the economy has deteriorated in recent months, from 48 approve, 46 disapprove in May to 46/50 in June and 44/52 today. This is consistent with the increasing pessimism the survey reports. In January of this year, 53 percent thought that that recession had not yet hit bottom and still had a way to go. Today, that figure stands at 64 percent.
  • Perceptions of the president’s stance toward the business community don’t seem to be working in his favor. 29 percent see him as too anti-business, versus only 14 percent who view him as too pro-business.

This brings me to the third set of findings—public attitudes about the congress and political parties.

  • Today, only 6 percent of respondents rate this congress as above average or one of the best, while fully 60 percent view it as below average or one of the worst. (By contrast, the breakdown before the 2006 midterms was 5 to 56; before the 1994 midterms, 7 to 44.)
  • For the first time since 2004, Republicans enjoy an edge over Democrats on dealing with the economy.
  • After a five year period in which Democrats held the advantage on reducing the federal budget deficit, Republicans have moved into an eight point lead.
  • As recently as 2007, Democrats were favored over Republicans to control federal spending by a margin of 36 to 20. Now that has reversed, with Republicans favored 37 to 23.

In sum, this midterm election will be dominated by national issues, especially the economy; the public is losing confidence in President Obama’s economic program; public evaluations of the performance of the Democratic-led congress could hardly be worse; and Republicans have regained the advantage on key economic issues.

Not all the news in this survey is bad for Democrats. The generic vote is roughly tied—not great, but it could be worse. And by 43 to 39 percent, respondents were more worried by the absence of Republican alternatives to current policies than they were by the prospect that Democrats won’t change those policies.

Still, I came away from this survey with an even deeper sense of foreboding about the fall. To avert disaster, Democrats will have to exploit every local and candidate advantage they have, and their GOTV effort will have to overcome truly daunting obstacles.