It’s not every election that comes as a surprise to voters. But this might be the first one that will come as a surprise to those who pay attention to the news.
The 2014 midterms have long trended toward Republicans in both the Senate and the House, which isn’t unusual for second-term presidencies. Only Bill Clinton managed to get through his relatively unscathed, thanks to public backlash over the Republican attempt to remove him from office when he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The Senate remained static in Republican control, but Clinton’s party lost no Senate seats and managed a modest five-seat gain in the House. .
Otherwise, most presidents fortunate enough to get a second term suffer through some form of voter remorse two years later. George W. Bush saw the GOP majority in both Congressional chambers evaporate in 2006 when his job-approval ratings plumbed new depths, thanks to Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War, losing 30 House seats and six in the Senate. Ronald Reagan lost eight seats in the Senate and the majority to the Democrats twenty years earlier.
Even a president as popular and age defining as Dwight Eisenhower lost a whopping 13 Senate seats in 1958. That makes the post-Watergate midterm election loss for Republicans of four Senate seats look relatively mild, even if Richard Nixon was no longer president at the time, having resigned two months earlier.
Right now, the White House has to hope that they’re still as popular as Republicans were in 1974 rather than in 1986 or 1958. Until this week, they seemed to have some reason to think that was the case. While President Obama’s poll numbers have plummeted over the course of the year, national surveys on the generic Congressional question showed Democrats competing with Republicans.
Polls in individual Senate races also looked competitive, even in states where Republicans expected to do well, such as Georgia and Arkansas. There may not have been any rational reason to expect Democrats to gain in 2014, but ample evidence to hope that the losses could be limited to something less than loss of control of the Senate.
Those polls, though, did not use likely-voter screens, at least at the national level. They also came while voters didn’t get terribly engaged in the midterm election fight. Voters don’t really start paying attention to midterm election until well after Labor Day, and neither does the media, except in short bursts. This summer may have had less coverage of the horse races than usual, thanks to the crises in the Middle East and the recent arrival of Ebola to American shores.
According to a new poll from the Associated Press, the voters are now paying attention, and Democrats are looking at the business end of a wave election. Republicans lead the generic ballot question by eight points, which tends to suggest an avalanche in two weeks. The GOP leads by eight points on the economy and 22 points on protecting the country, two of the top issues in this cycle.
Obama keeps tying himself to the midterm elections while 60 percent of likely voters disapprove of his performance and 54 percent find him personally unfavorable. Only 28 percent of likely voters definitively approve of his management of government, while 62 percent disapprove or lean toward disapproval. This AP poll is just the latest to show Obama’s drag on the chances for Democrats to avoid disaster, and even in their own series, it shows a significant shift away from Democrats over the last month.
Fortunately for Obama and the Democrats, the media still isn’t paying attention. The Media Research Center did a comparative study between media coverage of the 2006 midterms, which looked just as bad for Republicans for at least as long, and this year’s midterms with Democrats on the ropes. Between September 1 and October 20 in 2006, the three broadcast networks ran 159 reports on the midterm elections, 91 of which were full reports and the remainder mentions in other stories. The electorate knew full well what was coming in November 2006.
This year … not so much. The network news broadcasts have only aired twenty-five midterm stories combined. All eleven of the stories on NBC’s Nightly News have been “short mentions of individual contests” rather than in-depth reports on specific races, down from 65 in 2006. CBS Evening News dropped from 58 reports to 14. At least both did better than ABC’s World News Tonight, which has filed exactly zero reports on the elections.
Barack Obama and the Democrats will be held accountable for their performance over the last two years on November 4th. One has to wonder whether the Big Three broadcasters will cover the outcome at all, or better yet, be held accountable for their performance and their biased approach in the aftermath.
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