Obama’s State Approval Ratings Spell Trouble for Senate Democrats

Unless Democrats can distance themselves from President Obama, his low statewide approval numbers could cost them the upper chamber.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) comes out from the weekly policy luncheon October 4, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Jan. 29, 2014, midnight

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.

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