National polls can tell us a lot about the national mood, but if you want to get a grip on who will win the midterm elections, the only way to do it is to focus in on those who vote in contested House districts and states where Senate seats are up for grabs. That’s what Politico did with its latest poll published today and the results are likely to dampen some of the mild signs of optimism that Democrats have been exhibiting in recent weeks. According to the poll, likely voters say they favor Republicans over Democrats by a 41-34 percent margin. While each race will be won or lost by individual candidates rather than a generic party brand, this is another reminder that President Obama’s efforts to claim that he has conclusively won the debate on ObamaCare and other top issues will not help his party at the polls this November.
The results echo other polls of the entire country in which Americans overwhelmingly believe that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. With 60 percent of those in battleground areas believing that the debate on ObamaCare is not over and almost half calling for its outright repeal, the notion that a focus on health care will backfire on Republicans this year seems unfounded. Just as significantly, the list of top voter concerns should give cold comfort to Democratic strategists and liberal media outlets that have highlighted such issues as immigration or climate change. On a list of issues voters identified as their top priority, the economy ranks first with 26 percent while jobs and health care are the only others to register in double digits at 12 percent. Immigration and the environment get only three percent and two percent respectively. With the president’s job approval rating under water (59-40 percent negative) and voter enthusiasm also low in these areas, any hope of a surge in turnout that would benefit Democrats also seems unlikely.
But perhaps the biggest problem for Democrats is that, at least in those areas of the country where the minority of Americans will decide the 2014 elections, the liberal campaign to demonize congressional Republicans appears to have failed.
One of the interesting sidelights of this poll can be gleaned from the low approval ratings both parties’ congressional caucuses received. In the poll, Republicans are slightly more unpopular with a 69-31 percent negative/positive rating to the Democrats 64-35 result. That’s a troubling gap, but nowhere the margin that Democrats had hoped for heading into 2014. Democrats have been working under the assumption that the stands that House Republicans have taken in the last year would sink them with the voters. Their refusal to enact immigration reform, climate change legislation, or to raise the minimum wage is assumed to be a liability. But even more than that, the president and his party thought last fall’s government shutdown would put the GOP under water for the foreseeable future. This result, while still showing the voters’ disapproval, indicates that the subsequent debate over ObamaCare has overshadowed if not completely erased any substantive advantage held by the Democrats.
It is possible to interpret the poll numbers as a sign that opinion is shifting on the health-care law with a slight majority favoring its retention, albeit with a significant number believing it should be altered. But the assumption that this shows that Americans are gradually accepting the law—and that it will cease to work for the GOP in 2016—doesn’t take into account the fact that much of the pain and dislocation that it will cause hasn’t yet been felt. With a lot of the unpopular mandates delayed until 2015, the potential for a negative impact on the economy as well as a surge of anger by those who have been inconvenienced by it is being underestimated. If ObamaCare can’t establish itself as a clear favorite of most Americans before this happens, it isn’t likely to happen after the mandates go into effect.
If the Politico poll shows, in the words of the site’s article about the survey, that ObamaCare is a “political anchor” for the Democrats in 2014, anyone who assumes that it will help them in 2016 is making a leap of faith that is unjustified by the data.