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5 key insights into the midterm elections, courtesy of Mitt Romney's pollster

March 18, 2014, at 12:14 PM
 
Voters may take their economic frustrations out on a Democrat-controlled Senate.

Voters may take their economic frustrations out on a Democrat-controlled Senate. Photo: (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In a new episode of Political Wire's podcast, we spoke to GOP polling guru Neil Newhouse, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies and Mitt Romney's one-time campaign pollster, about what recent polling data portends for the 2014 midterms and beyond.

Here are five takeaways from our conversation:

1. Americans may feel as if they're experiencing a new normal of economic frustration. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds the longest period of sustained pessimism about the country's future since polling on the question began in the 1970s. Americans have viewed the direction of the country as negative for 10 straight years, and right now just 26 percent of Americans think we're headed in the right direction. A big factor is the economy. Officially the economic recession has long been over, but many Americans still aren't feeling the recovery. "They’re going to have to see a lot of facts on the ground to believe that we’re moving," Newhouse said. And when you throw in the gridlock in Washington, he said, "there’s a sense of being left behind and there’s nobody paying attention to their needs and their personal economy."

2. This new normal is hurting politicians at all levels and will drive what happens in the election. As much as ObamaCare has dominated the headlines lately, the one issue that drives how people vote more than any of the others is the economy. And when voters have been dissatisfied with the economy for so long, that can mean only one thing for politicians everywhere: "This is a very negative political environment and that’s impacting every elected official from the president on down to the county commissioner," Newhouse said. "There’s a frustration that this new normal is going to last forever, and they are upset by it, they want changes, and they’re going to vote for change."

3. Even though voters are mad at everyone, they may take their frustration out on the president. Voters are indeed mad at everyone. The president's approval spread of 41 percent/54 percent, while well underwater, is still better than that of either party in Congress. Congressional Republicans are viewed especially poorly. History shows that the party of the president almost always loses seats in Congress during midterm elections, though, and especially during the sixth-year election. And Democrats and Obama supporters should take little solace in the fact that voters don't view the president as negatively as they view congressional Republicans: "I think they blame everybody in Washington, but because Obama controls the White House and [Democrats hold] the Senate by a few seats, there’s a sense that he should be the one in control." The NBC/WSJ poll may bear this point out: More voters say their vote will signal opposition to Obama than support for him, 33 percent to 24 percent.

4. If the election were held today, the GOP would have the edge in the race for control of the Senate. A key finding from the NBC/WSJ poll: On a 10-point scale where 10 means most enthusiastic, 55 percent of Republicans rate their interest in the 2014 elections as a nine or 10. Just 43 percent of Democrats feel the same way. "That indicates Republicans are going into this election very pumped about their chances," Newhouse said. Moreover, in key red states with vulnerable incumbent Democrats, Obama's approval is below 40 percent. That spells trouble for Democrats; in 2012, the most that a non-incumbent Democrat ran ahead of the president was 10 points, Newhouse said. It all boils down to this: "Given the political environment, given where we are right now, I think Republicans have an edge." Still, he noted that we're seven months from the election. That's an eternity in politics. People's views may change, and that enthusiasm gap is bound to close at least a bit. "That’s why we run campaigns," he quipped.

5. What happens in this midterm says little to nothing about what will happen in 2016. Although the environment right now is favorable for congressional Republicans, political observers shouldn't extrapolate the results to what might happen 2016. He noted that the GOP wave of 2010 had Republicans giddy about their 2012 prospects. "The Obama campaign had something different in mind," as Republicans found out. "Midterms are a different breed," Newhouse said. Congressional Republicans have a favorable political environment right now, and they can campaign on their terms now. But the electorate will be different in this year's lower-turnout election than in 2016. And voters will be looking for something different when they choose their president than when they choose their Congress in a midterm. "They’re looking for someone who can ... lead them out of the economic doldrums and bring partisans together to try to get things done in Washington," Newhouse said.

Of course, "it’s easy to say. It’s extraordinarily tough to do, as President Obama has found."

Listen to the whole conversation here:

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