A top Democrat pollster summed up the challenge facing Democrats in the election just over a week away. “I think Obama being so unpopular is the biggest factor in this election,” Tom Jensen, a pollster with the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling said. “And I think at the end of the day, it may be too much for a lot of the Democratic Senate candidates to overcome.”
The observation was buried in a longer Politico article, but it summarizes perfectly the very strong headwinds Democrat candidates are facing in November. Obama’s job approval rating averaged 41% in the last quarter, just 2 points better than George W. Bush before the 2006 midterms. Obama’s numbers are most than 20 points lower than Reagan and Clinton and similar junctions in their presidencies. Avoiding a Democrat rout in the election 11 days away would be a history-bending accomplishment.
Yet, theoretically, the Democrats may just do that, according to polling averages today. While Republicans have gained the upper hand in several contests over the last week, almost all the polling in the competitive Senate races remains within the margin of error. Democrats, though, will have to outperform Obama by significant numbers to prevail on Election Day.
A look at individual states shows the depths of the Democrats’ challenge.
In North Carolina, Obama’s approval rating is slightly below the national average, with just 40% of Tarheel voters approving of his performance. Sen. Hagan’s polling numbers have been in the mid-40s in her match-up against Republican Thom Tillis. Many pundits expect Hagan to prevail in the close contest, but that would still require her to run ahead of Obama by almost 10 points.
Obama’s job approval numbers are similar in the other competitive states: Alaska (35%), Arkansas (34%), Colorado (40%), Iowa (39%), Louisiana (39%). Obama is polling worse in these states than elsewhere in the country, and yet Democrats are still in a position to pull out victories here.
Two other states where the race is close reinforce the impact Obama’s numbers are having on the election. In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is in a tight fight with Republican David Perdue. Obama’s numbers in Georgia are better than in most of the country. His job approval is at 45%, significantly higher than the other competitive states.
In Kansas, Democrats aren’t even competing for the Senate seat, leaving GOP Sen. Pat Roberts to battle an Independent candidate and making Obama’s numbers largely irrelevant. That race is more a referendum on long-time incumbent Roberts than Obama.
In 2006, a handful of GOP Senators found themselves in a similar position to many Democrats today. They entered the final week of the election in tight contests and, generally, slim leads in the polls. On Election Day, though, Bush’s terrible poll numbers overwhelmed them and they lost, handing control of the Senate to Democrats.
That is perhaps the likeliest outcome. Many of the Democrat candidates have run good campaigns, but Obama’s approval numbers may be too much to overcome. Still, it is noteworthy that with just 11 days to go they are still competitive.
That itself speaks volumes about the tenacity of Democrat campaigns or the possibly historic bungling of the Republican ones.