Last week’s Democratic losses in Virginia and New Jersey left the White House and party leaders grasping for answers and sputtering off-the-cuff excuses that were patently untrue.
The Republicans’ stunning double play in Tuesday’s off-year elections shook the White House, deepened political doubts about Barack Obama’s presidency and his remaining agenda, and had party chairman Tim Kaine scratching his head about what had caused the Democrats’ rout and whether it was a harbinger of further electoral losses in the 2010 midterm contests.
The White House high command trotted out talking heads to insist that Tuesday’s defeats were not a referendum on Mr. Obama. Presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, apparently with a straight face, that voters who went to the polls in both states were concerned with “very local issues that didn’t involve the president.” Oh, really?
In fact, exit polling at voting places found that more than 4 in 10 voters said their views about Mr. Obama and the job he was doing had indeed influenced their votes. “Those voters roughly split between expressing support and opposition for the president,” the Associated Press reported.
Mr. Kaine, the Democratic National Committee chairman and Virginia’s governor, insisted that Mr. Obama “really retains a strong popularity among voters” and continues to enjoy strong support among independent voters as he has in the past.
What planet is Mr. Kaine living on? Polls have been showing for months that independents have soured on Mr. Obama and his party, especially on the economy but also on health care and other issues as well. Let’s go to the numbers.
Mr. Obama’s scores have been falling for months. Last week’s Gallup poll showed his job-approval ratings have dropped to 50 percent, down from a 52-week high of 69 percent. His overall popularity grade is still a decent 55 percent, but that’s down from 78 percent in January.
Fewer Americans think he will keep his promises on the issues he staked out in his campaign. Notably, 31 percent of Americans think he will be able to keep his promises to control federal spending, down from 52 percent a year ago, Gallup reported. (That number especially hurt and forced the White House last week to send out Mr. Obama’s budget director, who said the administration was going to start doing something to curb spending.)
“After a strong start, Obama’s approval ratings have slumped,” Gallup reported last week in an analysis of the nation’s political climate in the 2010 election cycle that said it was “shaping up to be not as favorable to the Democratic Party as the 2006 and 2008 elections were.”
As for the claim that Mr. Obama’s support among independent voters (who fueled his presidential election) is as strong as ever, polls show that they make up a significant share of the voters who disapprove of the job he’s doing. Indeed, independent election analysts have said for months that those unaffiliated, swing voters have been moving toward the Republican Party in large numbers - tightening the spread in the party-preference polls.
White House political advisers keep pointing to party identification as proof that the Republican Party remains weak, but it’s a meaningless number in an era of increasingly unaffiliated voters when both parties are playing down party ID.
The real question is which party would you vote for in the congressional elections, and Gallup says the Democrats have a slim 46 percent to 44 percent advantage that “suggests a solid Republican showing if the midterm elections were held today, assuming a typical GOP advantage in turnout.” The Rasmussen poll last week put the generic party-preference ballot spread at 42 percent Republican and 38 percent Democrat.
The Democrats’ unsubstantiated claim that Mr. Obama and his party still have strong support among independents suggests deep denial over their party’s problems heading into 2010.
Exit polls in last week’s gubernatorial elections found nearly a third of the voters described themselves as independents and said they voted for the Republican by almost 2 to 1. AP reported Tuesday night that “after more than a year of recession,” independent voters “fled from Democrats” in both states.
Perhaps the most preposterous and disingenuous charge Democrats are hurling is that the Republican Party’s right wing is purging liberals and moderates. They point to the special House election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, where state Sen. Dede Scozzafava, a liberal Republican and the Republican Party’s nominee, dropped out of the race and threw her support to Democrat Bill Owens when her support plunged and Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate, surged past her, but narrowly lost in the end.
In fact, Ms. Scozzafava was a political casualty not of a purge but of the democratic process. Her leftist views were unpopular in a district long controlled by the Republican Party, and, fearing an embarrassing defeat, she fled the field of her own volition.
In fact, Republican moderates are alive and well and the likely Senate nominees of their party in many places. Among them: Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, former Rep. Rob Simmons in Connecticut and Rep. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, who has a good shot at taking Mr. Obama’s former Senate seat.
As for party purges, isn’t that what liberal Democrats tried to do to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut a few years ago?
Correction: Sen. Blanche Lincoln, mentioned in my last column, is from Arkansas.
Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.