A consistent topic in this column so far this year has been discussing what kind of election the 2014 midterm election will be and what it will be about. My theory has been that it could either be a continuation of the same GOP brand and image problems exhibited in 2012, particularly with women, younger, minority, and self-described moderate voters, or it could fit the pattern of second-term midterm elections since World War II, in which five out of six times, the party holding the White House has gotten clobbered in the House or Senate, or both. During second terms, a fatigue tends to set in. Voters tire of the sitting president, and they become increasingly open to change or to sending a message. Other analysts have framed the question of 2014 slightly differently: Will this election be a reflection of a very changed America and a rejection of the GOP’s recent direction? Or will it be a referendum, in a highly pejorative sense, on President Obama, Democrats, and health care reform, as we saw in 2010? Both theories end up in essentially the same place.
Obviously, the events of the coming month could very well further define the contours of next year’s elections. Most believe that if Republicans play their hand badly, it will dramatically increase the odds of the former scenario; some GOP strategists feel that if they can just get through the next month or so without self-inflicted wounds, then negative reactions to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act will help steer the public their way. Polls are consistently showing that while more voters disapprove than approve of the ACA, they don’t hate it enough to shut the government down over it, although many in the GOP base think otherwise.
One of the surveys I follow most closely is the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted jointly by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, two of the very best pollsters in the business. McInturff and his team at Public Opinion Strategies recently did an analysis of NBC/WSJ polls, merging 9,455 voters surveyed in 2010 into one group, the 7,963 interviews conducted in 2012 into a second, and the 2,532 surveyed from June through this month into a third for comparison. The study contained a mountain of data, but what grabbed my attention were the results in each of the three groups on the generic congressional ballot question. While this poll question cannot project how many seats each side will win, it is a useful — if rough — indicator of whether the partisan winds are blowing, and if they are, in what direction and with what intensity. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the generic-ballot question tends to yield results that tilt about 2 points more Democratic than the national popular vote has ultimately ended up, regardless of who conducts the survey or how precisely pollsters ask the question. Nevertheless, it is a generally uniform tilt, so I just mentally subtract 2 points from the Democratic net margin when analyzing these figures.
Looking at Hart and McInturff’s totals, the 2010 merged data — as would be expected, given the very strong Republican performance that Election Day — showed a GOP edge in the generic-ballot test of 45 percent to 43 percent (2 points, but treat it as 4 points to account for the Democratic tilt). In 2012, a good year for Democrats, the party led 47 percent to 42 percent, a 5-point advantage, but again, we’ll knock it down to 3 points for the purposes of this analysis. With these numbers for 2010 and 2012 in mind, how has the generic ballot looked for the past almost four months? The answer: Democrats hold a lead, 45 percent to 42 percent. Adjusted, this works out to a 1-point lead, essentially suggesting a draw at this point.
Something that might be of concern to Democrats, however, is that in this year’s data, independents are tilting Republican by 18 points, 43 percent to 25 percent. This is even more than the 14-point edge that the GOP had in the 2010 polling (40 percent to 26 percent) and dramatically different from the 1-point Democratic edge in 2012 (35 percent to 34 percent). While independents tend to vote in smaller numbers than they do in presidential years, so do some of the strongest Democratic groups, namely minorities, youths, and, in particular, young women. These are the voters who made a huge difference for the Democrats in the 2008 and 2012 elections. This turnout disparity between midterm and presidential years spells trouble for Democrats. They overcame that obstacle in 2006 by running strongly among those independents who had turned on President Bush over the war in Iraq, among other things. The forces at work are considerably different this time around.
Overall, these data would suggest that one of the key dynamics in 2014 will be which way independents are going and by how much. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether Democrats can motivate those undependable groups who, if they vote, cast their ballots by wide margins for Democrats.