Washington Report: The Political Weather Report

by Craig Piercy

As in most other places, the winter of 2014 has been long, damp and cold for Washington D.C., and the first green shoots of springtime are a welcome sight.

However, while the polar vortex may be fading into memory, there is still a chill in the air for Democratic-elected officials both in Washington and in states and cities around the country, as an ominous combination of electoral trends and cycles, political polls and fundraising numbers have many political observers predicting a significant victory for the Republican Party in this year’s elections.

To put it in weather terms, we are approximately 72 hours before the storm, we can look at the current conditions, the computer models and the expert analysis, and recognize that accumulation totals may be—the GOP. So let’s go to the map! Obamacare still dominates the political issue landscape, as the Affordable Care Act’s growing pains are still acute. Fewer eligible people are enrolling and paying for insurance in the exchanges than had been hoped. Those who do are generally older and sicker than the general population, stoking talk of additional subsidies and “death spirals.” People are being forced to change plans, often subjecting them to changes in cost, in-network and out-of-network doctors, and coverage for prescription medication. While the current situation doesn’t necessarily suggest complete collapse—I’m pretty much convinced that Obamacare is here to stay—it will take months if not years to resolve, and the continuous “drip-drip-drip” of bad news will generate a consistent headwind for any Democratic candidate running for reelection in November. The Florida special election won by GOP candidate David Jolly attests to the Obamacare’s generically negative political impact.

Most elections in the U.S. are influenced by recurring cycles. Think of it like a political El Niño and La Niña. For instance, U.S. senators are elected to six-year terms. Every two years, one third of the Senate stands for reelection. In the 2014 midterm elections, it will be those senators that were last elected in 2008, a banner year for President Obama and the Democrats, who must again face voters in the polls. As a result, Democrats must retain 21 currently held seats, six of which are in Republican-leaning states; whereas the Republicans only have 15 seats to defend, and of those, only one is in a Democrat-leaning state. Right now, you can bet that Democratic Senate incumbents in states like Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana who rode the Obama wave in 2008 are looking at some pretty scary poll numbers.

Meanwhile, the House has become a structurally Republicanled institution, largely because of clever redistricting—some may call it gerrymandering—by GOP-friendly state governments; the 1965 Voting Rights Act which requires states to create so-called “majority-minority” congressional districts; and general demographic trends. As a result, the incumbents in nearly 85 percent of House seats won the general election vote by 10 or more percentage points in 2012—basically the definition of a “safe” seat. Even if 2012 was a good year for Democrats, it is practically inconceivable that they can win the 17 seats needed to gain the majority.

Now let’s add in some other factors into the forecast. There is the “six-year itch,” where the party of the sitting second-term president gets clobbered in the midterm elections. There is also the historical GOP midterm election turnout advantage that acts as a gentle tailwind for Republican candidates.

Of course, there’s still time for the storm to shift course and spare the Left. Most polls still show that more Americans trust the Democrats to better handle major economic and social issues than their Republican counterparts. The GOP party itself is still a fractious brew of corporatists, libertarians and social warriors prone to infighting.

However, the models are starting to come into alignment, and the forecast has many Democrats running to the supermarket for milk and toilet paper.

Going forward, there is one political data point that serves as a “barometric pressure” reading of an election. It’s not going to tell you everything, but it’s a pretty good predictor of general outcomes: it’s presidential approval rating. Simply put, if the president’s approval rating is near or over 50 percent, his or her party tends to outperform historical election outcome averages. At the time of the Florida special election in early March, President Obama’s approval rating was 41 percent. Fast forwarding to November, if Obama’s approval rating is still in the lower 40s, the GOP is likely to win big. Should he be in the high 40s to 50, the Democrats may maintain control of the U.S. Senate—and surprise a lot of people.