Monday, November 25, 2013

Low Turnout Brings 2014 Hope to... Democrats?

It's not a good time to be a politician; they're hated more than Brussels sprouts at the Thanksgiving table. The troubled launch of Obamacare, of course, is to blame for the latest crisis of confidence—one that has brought Democrats down to the depths of public opinion that Republicans were already wallowing in post-shutdown. As a result, many a pundit is taking an I-told-you-so attitude. Everyone else is now seeing what they saw earlier: that it is unlikely Democrats can make gains in the 2014 election.

I really don't yet know what Democrats will do in 2014, but it's also not quite right to say voters are casting equal blame across both parties. Take a look at this Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll from last week:
"Just 38 percent of those polled said they approved of Obama's job performance, with 55 percent disapproving. ... Americans are even more dubious about Congress. Just 9 percent of those polled (down from 21 percent last November) approved of its performance. Fully 84 percent disapproved."
It tells what is by now a familiar story: Obama is unpopular, but Congress is even more unpopular. That doesn't necessarily speak well for Democrats. (Here we're treating Obama popularity as a proxy for Democrats and congressional popularity as a proxy for Republicans.) But here's something very interesting about the crosstabs of the poll:
"Almost nine-in-10 of those who disapproved of Obama's performance also gave Congress a thumbs-down; 56 percent of those who disapproved of Congress also flunked Obama."
A lot of people actually disapprove of both—so maybe Obama disapproval isn't a good proxy for Republicans, and congressional disapproval isn't a good proxy for Democrats. There is a sizable bloc of "plague on both your houses" voters—which probably isn't a surprise.

But there's an equally sizable bloc on the other side that continues to believe in government (or at least half of it). Just as many people still approve of exactly one party as hate them both. And, among this group, the people who approve of Obama but disapprove of Congress (i.e., Democrats) are far more numerous. Here's the breakdown of the poll's entire sample by this matrix we've concocted:

Disapprove of both Obama and Congress: 47%
Approve of Congress, disapprove of Obama (Republicans): 8%
Approve of Obama, disapprove of Congress (Democrats): 37%
Approve of both Obama and Congress: 1% (the poor souls)

(Note that it doesn't add up to 100%; the rest weren't sure what to think of our political morass.)

This is pretty remarkable. Now, obviously, there aren't four times as many Democrats as Republicans; plenty of Republicans (i.e., Tea Partiers) are in the "plague on both your houses" group. But most Democrats aren't disillusioned at all; the 37% in the sample above almost exactly matches the 38% of nationwide voters who identified as Democrats in the exit polls of last year's election.

So what does this mean for 2014? I would posit that the 47% who are so cynical may simply not show up to vote at all. Why show up to vote in an election that you don't think will make a difference? The midterm is already a low-turnout environment anyway. If only people who believe in government, with a stake in one of the sides, show up in 2014, the electorate will look like this (removing the 47% from the sample):

Approve of Congress, disapprove of Obama (Republicans): 17%
Approve of Obama, disapprove of Congress (Democrats): 80%
Approve of both Obama and Congress: 2%

Now, obviously it won't break down that way; 80% Democrats is an impossible number. Some of the disenchanted 47% will certainly show up, and their unpredictability is what's casting the 2014 election into such uncertainty. But among voters who aren't likely to throw up their hands and forsake the whole system, Democrats dominate. That built-in advantage is, if nothing else, better than the alternative heading into 2014.

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