Why the Democrats are in deep trouble

John Judis:
In his memo this week, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg warns me to “forget the conventional wisdom” that “the president is in trouble.” Greenberg points to Barack Obama’s approval rating being up, the Republicans’ reputation at a “remarkable low,” and the generic Congressional vote between the parties even. Some of this makes sense, but on eve of Obama’s State of the Union address, I’m going with the conventional wisdom: Obama and the Democrats are in deep trouble.

Greenberg cites an improvement in Obama and the Democrats’ polling numbers over the last month, but the improvement is very slight. What I’d point to instead is a comparison between where Obama and the Democrats stood in January 2010 and where they stand today. In January 2010, they were about to lose the Massachusetts senate race, and in November 2010 would lose 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. If Obama and the Democrats’ numbers are better now than they were then, they may not be in trouble; but if they’re worse, the convention wisdom is right. And they’re worse.

The most recent standard of comparison is the ABC/Washington Post poll that asked some of the same questions in January 2010. First, there are the questions about Obama. These are relevant because midterm elections are often referenda on the president and his party. In January 2010, Obama’s approval ratings were 53 approval to 44 percent disapproval of his “handling his job as president.” Today, 46 percent approve and 50 percent disapprove – a 13-point swing. In January 2010, 47 percent approved and 52 percent disapproved of his handling of the economy. Today 43 percent approve and 55 percent disapprove – a seven-point swing.

In January 2010, 57 percent of registered voters thought that Obama understood “the problems of people like you.” 42 percent did not. Today, it’s 47 to 52 percent – a twenty-point swing. And there is a similar twenty-point swing in the question of how much confidence voters have in Obama’s ability to “make the right decisions for the country’s future.” In short, the electorate has far less confidence in Obama now than they did in January 2010.

ABC Washington Post didn’t ask the same questions about Democrats and Republicans in January 2010 that they asked today, but they did ask these questions in October 2010 on the eve of the Republicans’ sweep. In October 2010, voters thought Democrats would do a better job than Republicans handling the economy by 44 to 37 percent. Today, they think Republicans would do a better job by 44 to 37 percent – a twenty-point turnaround. In October 2010, voters said (incredibly) that they preferred Democratic House candidates by 49 to 44 percent. Today, they prefer Republicans by 45 to 46 percent. The number for October 2010 may be inaccurate, but in any case, there is nothing in the current numbers to inspire confidence. In midterm elections, the Republicans have a built-in advantage that allows them to maintain their majoritywithout winning a majority of votes.
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Judis is writing in the liberal New Republic so he is probably more clear eyed than most Democrats these days on which way the winds are blowing.  The Democrat partisans will again try to focus on what they see as Republican weakness, but this election will be about voting against the Democrats and the current administration.

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