Senate Democrats have a big problem. Historically, Senate candidates struggle where their party's president is the least popular. And, as Gallup's 2013 state approval-rating averages show, President Obama is very, very unpopular in the states Democrats have to defend in the 2014 elections.
One look at Obama's state-by-state approval rating averages ought to send a shiver through the ranks of Senate Democrats.
Republicans need to capture six seats to win control of the Senate, and Democrats have to defend five deep-red states—Arkansas, Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia—where Obama's approval rating was at or below 35 percent in 2013, according to Gallup's 2013 polling averages. The president was also far underwater in another two Democratic-held states he lost in 2012, Louisiana (40 percent) and North Carolina (43 percent), as well as purple-tinged Colorado and Iowa (42 percent), which Obama won.
Overall, Gallup calculated Obama's average approval in 2013 at 46 percent. Oregon, New Hampshire, and New Mexico (45 percent) also just fell below that line. In two red states where Democrats hope to gain seats this year, Georgia and Kentucky, the president's job approval stood at 45 percent and 35 percent, respectively, in 2013.
In the past 10 years, just nine senators of the president's party have won elections in states where presidential approval slips below the national average, according to a review of exit polls and election results since 2004.
Not a single Republican victory is assured in 2014, and Democrats have solid candidates defending most of their seats. But recent history underscores how difficult it will be to defend so many Senate seats that lean so strongly against the leader of their party.
As George W. Bush won and served his second presidential term from 2004 through 2008, only four Republican senators won reelection in states where Bush was less popular than he was nationally. Sens. Arlen Specter and Judd Gregg defied the trend in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in 2004, and Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in Maine achieved that rare result in 2006 and 2008.
In 2010, when 44 percent of voters said they approved of President Obama, just one state below that line elected a Democratic senator: West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin memorably fired a rifle shot through the cap-and-trade bill in a TV ad. Overall, from 2004 through 2010, Senate candidates in this situation batted just 5 for 49.
It's always hard to win a state that typically supports the other party, but it seems to be much more difficult for a senator whose party holds the White House. It was much easier for Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor or Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu to win reelection with George W. Bush as president. Former Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson even won reelection in 2006 despite Bush's 55 percent statewide approval rating. But candidates like Manchin, who won in 2010 despite Obama's 30 percent approval rating in West Virginia, are far more rare.
Exit pollsters didn't release presidential approval data in every state in 2012, but the actual election results provide a reasonable approximation. Democratic Senate candidates performed extraordinarily well in the states Obama lost in 2012, winning four—Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota—where the president lost by at least 9 percentage points. (Manchin also won a full term in West Virginia as voters routed Obama there.) A combination of several made-for-the-moment Democratic candidates and several ill-timed Republican stumbles—hello, Todd Akin—helped Democrats overachieve in a number of conservative-leaning states.
Democrats can hold onto two key hopes for 2014, as far as Obama's approval ratings go. First, he may have suffered through the worst months of his presidency in late 2013, and his job-approval ratings have recovered, slightly, in January. If that revival persists, the president could be in a better position to help his fellow Democrats help themselves in the fall.
More important, since Obama's approval will never climb that high in the red states they must defend to keep the Senate majority, Democrats believe they have the right candidates and experience to pull off more wins in the mold of Manchin's or their quartet of enemy-territory victors from 2012. Among their incumbents, Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), and Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) demonstrated in 2008 that they could win ticket-splitting votes, and Sen. Kay Hagan ran ahead of the president in North Carolina, too.
Seven months before the 2012 election, National Journal's Ronald Brownstein wrote: "For all of the focus on fundraising, advertising wars, and grassroots campaign organizations, no single factor may shape this year's battle for control of the Senate more than attitudes toward President Obama." It is as true now as it was then.
This article appears in the January 30, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.