Tag Archives: 2014 midterms

Health Care and the Obama Presidency: A Giant Squander?

There’s no doubt that, as midterms go, President Obama has not fared well. In 2010, his Democratic Party lost 63 House seats – the biggest midterm loss in that chamber since 1938 – and with it control of the House to the Republicans. Although they also lost six Senate seats, Democrats were at least able to retain their majority there. Four years later, however, Democrats lost the Senate too when Republicans picked up 8 Senate seats in the 2014 midterms – with one more still at stake – to regain a Senate majority. Republicans also padded their House majority by gaining a dozen more seats (a handful of House races have yet to be decided). The net result is that Obama is facing an opposition-controlled Congress for the last two years of his presidency.

The successive Republican waves are particularly devastating because they swept away what many pundits believed to be a coming period of Democratic electoral dominance. When Obama was elected President in 2008, he appeared to display substantial coattails; Democrats picked up 25 House and 8 Senate seats and enjoyed comfortable majorities in both chambers. More importantly, demographic trends suggested the size of the Democratic voting coalition was likely to expand in the coming years. In short, Obama’s election was, as one pundit put it at the time, “likely to create a new governing majority coalition that could dominate American politics for a generation or more.” Instead, the purported realignment lasted a bit less than two years. To borrow one of the catch phrases of Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione, the Obama presidency has been, politically at least, “a giant squander”.

But just how big a squander is it, historically speaking? One chart that made the rounds of the twitterverse this week indicates it was a very big squander indeed. It shows that Obama’s Democrats have suffered a net loss of 13 Senate and 77 House seats during the two midterms held in his presidency, which ranks as the third worst cumulative midterm seat loss among modern presidents, behind only FDR and Truman.

Obama losses

But is this really a useful metric? Roosevelt, who suffered the greatest cumulative seat loss, is nonetheless typically ranked as one of the nation’s three best presidents – someone who was the consummate political leader.  The problem with using total seat loss as a measuring rod is that presidents like FDR who enter office with substantial coattails, as indicated by large partisan majorities, and who serve the longest – both arguably measures of political skill – stand a greater probability of losing more seats. Moreover, looking only at midterms may not be a fair measure of a president’s party leadership since midterms operate under such unfavorable dynamics to the president. Perhaps a better metric is to assess the proportion of seats a president loses over the course of his presidency in all elections. This is not perfect, of course, because it still penalizes presidents who enter with a substantial governing majority – they have greater room to fall – but it is probably a better gauge of a president’s political pull than a raw seat count of midterms alone. Middlebury College student Tina Berger calculated that figure for all the modern presidents and summarized the totals in this chart.

Seats lostAlas, Obama does even worse by this standard – among modern presidents only Dwight Eisenhower lost a greater proportion of party seats across his presidency. The Republican Ike, however, presided in the midst of the post-Depression Democratic-dominated era (he was the only Republican president to serve between 1933 and 1969) and he managed to retain his personal popularity even as control of Congress reverted to what might be called its natural partisan state during this New Deal period. Obama, in contrast, has watched his popularity stagnate in the low 40% approval level for the better part of a year and with Democrats winning four of the last six presidential elections, it can hardly be called a Republican era (Karl Rove’s McKinleyesque visions notwithstanding.)

To be sure, not all of the blame for Democrats’ losses can be pinned on Obama. Surely the Party’s congressional wing is partly culpable for its dismal showing. Nor should we forget when judging his political leadership that Obama won reelection in 2012, and did so while helping Democrats net eight House and two Senate seats. The bottom line, however, is that in this era of nationalized politics, elections – even mid-year ones – are invariably in large part referendums on the president’s performance. And, at least by this one metric, Obama appears to have come up short.

Where did it all go wrong? Pundits are quick to blame the President’s detached leadership style but as I’ve noted in previous posts, it’s not clear how much temperament or character really matters. The fact is that Obama inherited an economic mess and a war on terror – two issues that defy easy solutions under the best of political circumstances. Moreover, as David Mayhew persuasively argues, the American system of separated institutions, each operating according to its own electoral clock and responding to different constituencies, seems to possess a systemic equilibrating tendency that prevents either party from holding onto strong majorities for very long, regardless of the president’s skills. In this respect Obama’s presidency demonstrated a not unexpected reversion to the political mean.

Still, I doubt very many pundits in 2008 predicted the speed and degree to which Obama’s governing majorities would dissipate – if they predicted dissipation at all. If one were to isolate one primary reason for this speedy partisan erosion, it is probably Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform despite strong Republican opposition and lukewarm public support. Along with the economic stimulus bill, health care proved to be the focal point of Republican resistance early in his presidency, and his failure to bring even a single Republican aboard when passing Obamacare cemented the partisan divisions that have come to characterize our national politics, and provided a rallying point for Republicans as they fought to regain partisan control of Congress. This is not to say pursuing health care reform was a mistake. It is to say that Obama – and his Democratic Party – paid a steep political price for doing so.

And so I wonder: as he contemplates finishing out his presidency facing two years of an opposition-controlled Congress, and with the fate of his signature piece of legislation now partly in the hands of the Supreme Court, does the President ever ask himself whether passing health care reform was really worth it?

Why The Economy Didn’t Help Democrats

I’m up today at U.S. News with a piece that examines why the improving economy did not help Democrats in the 2014 midterms even though economic growth was the primary reason Obama won reelection in 2012. Briefly, I think there are three related explanations:

First, as I noted in this Bloomberg interview, voters’ negative perceptions regarding economic growth lagged behind objective conditions, due in no small part to the incremental and uneven pace of growth.

Second, voters view economic conditions through their own partisan lenses, and with the midterm electorate shading more Republican compared to 2012, it’s no wonder more voters had a negative perception of the state of the economy.

Finally, many Democratic incumbents were reluctant to tie themselves too closely to Obama, and they also ran for Congress by running against it as an institution. It’s hard to claim credit for macroeconomic improvements when one is also implicitly criticizing the President and Congress.

I’ll be up with a separate post soon taking on some of the more prevalent day-after punditry that is crediting the Republican win to clever advertising, new turnout technology and spending by outside groups.

 

Are Democrats Really Running From Obama?

Are Democrats really running from Obama in this election cycle?

In a recent column liberal-leaning columnist Paul Waldman argued that, as the article’s title puts it, the “‘Democrats running from Obama story’ is being way overplayed.” Waldman’s basic point is that while Obama is not particularly popular – his approval ratings are hovering in the low 40% range – neither is he unusually toxic by historical standards. Rather than running from Obama, Waldman argues that “What this is really about is geography. What’s distinct about this year is that there are so many close races not just in ‘purple’ states, but in states that are deeply red. Should we be surprised that a candidate like [Alison] Grimes doesn’t want to be associated with Obama? She’s running in Kentucky. A state Obama lost in 2012 by 23 points. Mark Pryor in Arkansas isn’t asking the President to campaign with him, either. That’s because Obama lost there by 24 points.” Waldman concludes by claiming that, “But even if Obama were more popular nationally, the same thing would be happening.”

This last statement is almost certainly wrong. To be sure, we can quibble with how to define “overplayed” when it comes to the media’s claim that Democrats are running from Obama. But Waldman’s argument is still more than a bit disingenuous. To begin, one reason these states are “deeply red” is not because of “geography”, but because they voted against Obama in the last two presidential elections. So yes, Grimes and Pryor aren’t asking Obama to campaign with them, but that’s because he’s simply not popular in Kentucky and Arkansas. If he was, the geography would change.

A better test of Waldman’s claim is to look at those “purple” states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012. Take New Hampshire, a state Obama won by a little over 5% in 2012 and by almost 10% in 2008. This year incumbent Democratic Senator Jean Shaheen is locked in a tight race with her Republican opponent Scott Brown. Given the results of the last two presidential races, you might think Shaheen has begged the President to camp out with her in New Hampshire so that she could benefit from his presence. You would be wrong. Based on the official presidential schedule listed on the White House website, Middlebury College student Tina Berger finds that Obama has not visited New Hampshire once during the last six months. The reason, of course, is that contrary to Waldman’s theme, Obama is toxic in New Hampshire. A poll from early September puts the President’s overall approval rating in New Hampshire at 38%, with his disapproval at 51%. Not surprisingly, Shaheen has worked assiduously to make the case that this election is not about the President, or his policies, but instead about what she brings home to New Hampshire. Her ads consistently tout the local projects – widening Interstate 93, opening veterans’ care facilities, reopening a local prison – that she has sponsored while in the Senate, as well as her New Hampshire roots. Her opponent Scott Brown, meanwhile, has flooded the air waves with ads, like this one below, reminding voters that Shaheen has voted with the President “99% of the time”, and taking particular care to mention her support for Obamacare.

In his closing ad that has just begun airing in New Hampshire, Brown pointedly says that while Obama is not on the ballot, his policies are. Nor is New Hampshire an anomaly. In Iowa, a state Obama won in 2008 and 2012, polls show that Democratic Representative Bruce Braley and Republican state Senator Joni Ernst are in a virtual dead heat to fill the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. Surely Obama’s presence on the campaign trail might swing the state to Braley? Apparently not – Berger’s data shows that Obama hasn’t visited this state in the last six months either. And no wonder – his approval ratings in a state he won twice hover in the low 40% range. And so it goes for a range of swing states; according to Berger Obama has visited Colorado, Georgia and North Carolina – states with hotly contested Senate races – only once each in the last six months, and that he has skipped Louisiana, where Democrat Mary Landrieu is in the race of her political life, entirely during that period. In contrast, he’s made 8 visits – many for fundraising purposes – to California and New York during this six-month period.

And Obama’s toxicity extends to House races in purple states as well. Here’s an ad run by Democrat John Barrow, a five-term Representative from Georgia’s 12th District. Veteran handicapper Charlie Cook currently rates Barrow’s race against Republican challenger Rick Allen as a toss-up. Notice how many times Barrow mentions the President, or even his party affiliation, in this ad (hat tip to Kate Hamilton):

Instead – like Shaheen – he touts local projects that he has helped bring to Georgia, even as he positions himself as an anti-Washington candidate. In a classic illustration of Fenno’s Paradox, Barrow runs for Congress by running against it.

It is well-known that the president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections. This chart shows the losses the president’s party has incurred during the post-World War II midterms. As you can see, the president’s party gained seats only twice – in 1998 and 2002 – and both those sets of elections took place during unusual circumstances (Clinton’s impeachment and post-9-11 ).

As I’ve discussed previously, however, recent midterms have increasingly been driven more by national forces than they have by local ones. And in an era of ideologically-polarized political parties, that means the midterm is inevitably in part a referendum on the President who is viewed as the symbolic face of his party. Indeed, most political science midterm forecast models include a variable measuring the President’s popularity. Candidates for Congress are strategic actors. Both Republicans and Democrats understand that Obama’s policies are on the ballot this election cycle, protestation to the contrary notwithstanding. And they are behaving accordingly. In purple states, Obama’s relative lack of approval is not helping Democrats which is why they are not asking him to campaign for them.

Are Democrats really running from Obama this election cycle?  Yes they are.

What Does Tuesday’s Special Florida Election Tell Us About the Upcoming Midterms?

Many analysts viewed last Tuesday’s special House election in Florida’s 13th district to replace longtime Republican Congressman Bill Young as a bellwether for the upcoming 2014 midterm congressional elections, particularly because they expected Obamacare to be the central issue in the Florida campaign and in November’s elections.  Thus, the author of the New York Times’ election preview, which was headlined: “Florida Race for House Sets Stage for 2014”, described it as “a contest in the first race of the 2014 battle for control of Congress, with both parties hoping for a victory and watching carefully how President Obama’s health care law may affect the outcome.” The prevailing media perspective did not change in the aftermath of Republican David Jolly’s narrow 48.5% to 46.6% victory over his Democratic opponent Alex Sink.  In a not uncharacteristic post-election interpretation, the Economist wrote: “On March 11th David Jolly, a Florida Republican, won a special election to the House of Representatives by relentlessly bashing Obamacare. His party hopes to use the same tactic to hold the House and capture the Senate in November. ”  Similarly, a Washington Post article opined that “Jolly’s win in a Gulf Coast district just west of Tampa illustrated the political toxicity of the law known as Obamacare. Jolly favored repealing and replacing the law, which was a central focus of the campaign, while his Democratic opponent did not.”

But did Jolly really win the special election by “relentlessly bashing” Obamacare – and will that tactic make a difference in who controls Congress come November?   The answers are not as clear cut as many analysts would have us believe.  It is true that Jolly ran on a platform that included repealing Obamacare.  But Sink’s stated position, which was to fix Obamacare, rather than repeal it, actually had strong support among likely voters, at least in the limited polling data* I was able to review.  For example, in a poll of likely voters conducted by St. Leo University, 40% of respondents wanted to keep Obamacare but make changes to fix some of the problems, compared to 20% who wanted to repeal it and replace it with a different health care plan, and only 20% who wanted repeal and a return to the pre-Obamacare status quo.

Of course, one needs to be cautious in using polling data to infer voters’ motivations. One difficulty is that those responding to surveys can only express an opinion on issues about which they are polled.  If voters are only asked about Obamacare, it will seem to loom large in their decision calculus. Moreover, responses differ according to what options are available. For example, this St. Petersburg poll of likely voters only asked respondents about their views on two issues: Obamacare and illegal immigration.  And on Obamacare, 35% of those surveyed said they supported repeal, 34% leaving it alone, and 27% advocated repeal once a “better plan” is in place.  Without specifying the details of that “better plan”, however, it is hard to interpret the results.  Does that mean a plan that is Obamacare without the blemishes, which was Sink’s stated position?  Similarly, in the St. Leo poll, it is hard to know what the 20% who wanted to replace Obamacare “with a different plan” had in mind, and how closely that option aligned with Sinks’.  (I did not see any crosstabs in either poll by which to judge the candidates’ respective supporters’ views on Obamacare.) Note that many of the ads attacking Sink for her support of Obamacare, such as this one by the Chamber of Commerce, did not necessarily advocate for its repeal.  Instead, they targeted its impact on Medicare payments.

So it’s not clear that Jolly’s message to repeal Obamacare carried the day.

In taking stock of Jolly’s victory, it is also helpful to remember that the smaller voter turnout characteristic of a special election is not always a reliable indicator of who will vote during a normal midterm election cycle. Note that while Sink appeared to have a slight lead based on early voting heading into Tuesday’s election, Jolly evidently benefited from a better Election Day turnout.  However, the election drew only about 184,045 voters, and Jolly won victory over Sink by less than 4,000 votes. Pre-election polls indicated that Jolly’s support was stronger among the older white voting population that is more likely to turn out in a special election. By comparison, in 2012 the long-time incumbent Young won this district by a much larger margin, 16% over his Democratic opponent, than did Jolly on Tuesday even though President Obama narrowly carried the district by about 50% to 49% in the presidential race. Of course turnout in that presidential year was almost 330,000 voters – much higher than it is likely to be in the coming mid-term election. However, in the 2010 midterm, turnout in Florida’s 13th district, (which encompassed slightly different territory) was almost 267,000 – much higher than what we saw in last Tuesday’s special election. (According the Florida Secretary of State’s office, Republican voters constituted about 38% of voters in the district, Democrats about 35%, and Independents about 23%, but I don’t know the partisan breakdown of Tuesday’s voting pool.)  So Jolly may have benefited by the smaller size and composition of Tuesday’s electorate.

Nor was this election only about Obamacare – voters were inundated with ads targeting Sink’s handling of a pension fund, Jolly’s views on entitlement reform including Social Security, and climate-change related issues including flood control, in addition to immigration. All of this makes me much more skeptical than are media pundits regarding what the results of Tuesday’s election tell us about the likely impact of Obamacare come November. Keep in mind that Republican control of the House is probably not at stake in 2012, regardless of how large Obamacare looms in voters’ decision calculus. And in the Senate races in which Democrats are vulnerable, Obamacare is only one of a myriad of issues, including jobs and the state of the economy, that are likely to influence outcomes. Finally, I expect most Democratic candidates to run on a platform of “mending” Obamacare, which may prove more appealing to many moderate voters than calls to fully repeal it.

So, does Tuesday’s special election result in Florida’s 13th congressional district provide an accurate preview of election events to come? Probably not nearly as much as some media pundits will have you believe.

*Thanks to Kate Hamilton for research on the polling data I referenced here.