Monday, May 5, 2014

Tom Fina's Letter from Washington, 1 May

To Democrats Abroad
1 May 2014
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus

Nate Silver predicted Republican control of the Senate by one seat on March 23. The New York Times successor to Silver, ”Upshot”, predicted Democratic chances to retain control at 51%. Both concluded that the outcome was a toss up.

The two over-arching and over-lapping factors in determining the November Senate outcome are the President’s standing and race. The accepted wisdom is that any time voter approval of a President drops below 50%, his party’s candidates lose votes. Obama’s national approval had fallen from 45% to 42-43% for Silver’s prediction. Upshot’s odds were calculated when Obama’s approval was at about 44% (Real Clear Politics average). The latest Washington Post/ABC poll (April 27) found his approval at the lowest in his presidency – 41%.

Presidential elections galvanize the entire electorate and the press. Election of a president is seen as really important. That brings out Democratic and independent voters. Election of senators and, even less, representatives is seen as much more complicated, less interesting and less important. That is where the older, conservative white vote tips the balance.

It is presidential approval and race that drive the decisive election factor: turnout. As I detailed in the March Letter, mid-term turn out is lower than in presidential election years and the turnout of women, the young, minorities and gays, (who are the Democratic counter to conservative old whites), drops. A higher proportion of older, white conservative voters go to the polls.

The President’s approval rating is suffering from disillusionment among liberal and independent voters. Liberals are angry at his use of drones against perceived terrorists abroad, NSA surveillance of domestic communications, the continued deportation of illegal immigrants and the lack of punishment of the largest banks for their responsibility in the economic crisis of 2008, failure to halt fracking and to block the XL pipeline. Some are also critical of Obama’s foreign policy “ indecisive amateurism”, his unfulfilled threats to Assad, his support for the government of Ukraine in the face of Russian annexation of Crimea and its destabilization of eastern Ukraine.

Among conservatives, Obama’ is seen as weak and indecisive abroad yet overly aggressive and over-reaching at home. They are disgusted by his failure to use armed force against Assad in Syria and his refusal to mount a more aggressive response to Putin in Ukraine, his effort to find a modus vivendi with Iran and for the “reset” with Russia. At the same time, conservatives complain that Obama is exceeding his legal power in “jamming through healthcare reform”, reducing illegal immigrant deportations, in fine tuning ACA regulations, in ordering reductions in pollution and in NSA monitoring of communications, in deficit spending rather than cutting federal spending.

Obama, like Odysseus, is trying to steer between Scylla and Charybdis. A check on his navigation at this point shows that in trying to find common ground with the right he has gained nothing from it and lost support on the left. It is that loss to the left that risks the loss of the Senate when Democratic and independent voters stay home.

But, race is a pervasive factor as well. Control of the Senate depends in large part on the outcome in 5 states in the Deep South all of which Obama lost in 2012: Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. Obama’s disapproval rate is 60% in AK and KY, 54% in LA and 51% in NC and 49% in GA. In these states, as across the map of the Deep South, Republican capture of the white vote and the southern white capture of the Republican Party has ended, at least for now, the long held Democratic hold on the south. According to the new “Nate” (Cohen) of Upshot, 90% of southern white voters supported Romney in many counties – about the same proportion as black support for Obama. Cohen found that 41% of Republican voters in 2012 came from the Deep South and they elected more than half of all House Republicans.

Nevertheless, in these 5 southern states that could decide control of the senate, Democrats could still win. Upshot ranks them all as “competitive” with Democratic chances best in NC. Three of them (LA,AK,NC) have Democratic incumbents. In KY, the Democratic challenger to Mitch McConnell benefits from his unpopularity. In Georgia, the retiring Republican Senator, leaves an open race with Sam Nunn’s daughter, Michelle, with no primary opponent and a very divided Republican field. At this point, the respected political analyst, Charlie Cook, has moved Georgia from “leaning Republican” to “toss up”.

None of these Democrats is touting support for Obama. But, his fund raising for them is a help. As is the fading of Obamacare as a Republican trump card since enrollment has exceeded everyone’s targets and expectations. It is still a favored Republican charge against Democrats but the number of those enrolled, the CBO estimate that its cost will be less than estimated, insurer’s satisfaction with its progress and less public support for its repeal, makes it a diminishing threat to Democratic candidates. Late polling finds (Upshot/Pew April 23) that majorities, even in Republican states, now do not want its repeal. And, that lets Democrats parry Republican attacks by calling for its improvement.

The April 2 Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon vs FEC further opening the way for unrestrained political fund raising and spending will also affect November. But, it is an ill wind... And the slim potential good here, from the Democratic point of view, is that national Democratic Party fund raisers will be able to raise even more obscene amounts of big donor money than before. It might also give the Republican National Committee greater power in its civil war with its Tea Party radicals and outside players like the Koch brothers.

Nothing has changed the conclusion that control of the Senate in November hinges on turnout. Whatever complaints Democrats and Independents may have now about the President, Republican capture of the Senate would face both with even less palatable national policies. The only way to avoid that loss will be for the winning Democratic coalition of the young, women, minorities, gays, seculars, college educated and post-grads to rouse itself and get its voters to the polls.