Obama Pulls Down His Party

Like George W. Bush’s, the current president’s approval ratings are sinking his party’s congressional candidates

On the morning of Nov. 5, 2008, the Republican Party lay in ruins. The Democrats had just obliterated its candidates, and after the Franken-Coleman recount achieved the holy grail of a filibuster-proof Senate majority. In time, a senior congressional Republican visited the offices of the Journal’s editorial page to talk about the carnage.

Someone asked how George Bush’s low approval rating, at 30-something, had affected the congressional races. “Bush killed us,” came the reply. “He just killed us.”

Now it looks as if another president’s depressed approval rating is about to kill his party.

All presidents say they don’t follow their approval ratings. But the linkage between presidential approval and the re-election fortunes of his nominal party allies appears to grow stronger with every election cycle.

Most of the time, the headline job-approval rating for presidents is a rough proxy for the national mood. But in a modern off-year congressional election, voters have one eye on individual Senate, House or gubernatorial candidates and the other eye on the political player no one can avoid anymore—the president. Whether Bush or Obama, we are marinated in the modern presidency, probably too much so.

Though less publicized, the president’s state-by-state approval is routinely sampled by pollsters. If one compares Barack Obama’s percentage share of a state’s 2008 presidential vote with his approval rating today, the effect on the fortunes of his party’s candidates in key states is striking.

In Wisconsin, a Democratic bastion, voters in 2008 gave Mr. Obama 56% of their vote (his share of the national popular vote was 53%). Today, the Obama approval rating has fallen 10 points, to 46%. A political rule of thumb holds that when you fall below 50%, bad things start to happen. The public mood darkens, people focus, and events can push the approval number ever downward. Ask Russ Feingold.

The three-term Democratic senator is running nine points behind—and this has to hurt—a “Republican businessman,” Ron Johnson. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who is Milwaukee’s mayor, is also nine back.

Colorado gave Mr. Obama 54% of its 2008 vote. His approval now: 38%. Republican Ken Buck is up 6.5 points over incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet.

Pennsylvania was another 54% win for candidate Obama. Approval today: 41%, and former GOP Congressman Pat Toomey leads Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak by almost seven points in their race to take the Democratic Senate seat held by Arlen Specter.

In the Ohio Senate race, former Bush budget director Rob Portman is up 12 points on the Democratic lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher. Though the New York Times/CBS sample has an Obama approval of 43% in a state he won, Quinnipiac’s 38% sounds closer to the reality of the extremely ticked-off Buckeye State.

In Nevada, Mr. Obama has fallen to 47% from 55%, and the Senate Majority Leader is gasping against tea partier Sharron Angle.

Washington state voters were ga-ga for Mr. Obama in 2008, at 57%. Now it’s 48%. That nine-point decline translates into a mere three-point lead for Democratic incumbent Sen. Patty Murray over Dino Rossi.

Even in Illinois, which went 62% for native son Obama and was recently thought to be a GOP dead zone, his approval has fallen 18 points, to 44%. Both the senate and governor’s races are dead heats.

Democrats will argue that the bad economy explains everything. But in states where Mr. Obama’s approval rating has held up—New York (58%), Connecticut (53%), Massachusetts (54%) and Maryland, the land that time forgot (61%)—so have the party’s candidates.

In New York, incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a weak candidate, is up 11 points. In Connecticut, another damaged and unattractive Democratic candidate, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, holds a nine-point lead over Linda McMahon. And don’t hold your breath expecting another Massachusetts miracle to defeat Barney Frank.

California, over the top for Mr. Obama with 61% in ’08, is harder to read. His approval there runs from 56% in the Los Angeles Times poll to 48% with Fox. Barbara Boxer, who should be the most vulnerable Senate Democrat on the ballot, remains nearly seven points ahead of Carly Fiorina. Jerry Brown holds a margin-of-error lead over Meg Whitman (four points).

The Obama camp can argue that given his grand agenda (recall that Denver acceptance speech), the president spent his popularity capital when it mattered. His 2008 campaign swept those massive majorities into the 111th Congress. He and that Congress then passed ObamaCare. Like it or not, and most voters do not, it now governs 16% of the economy. From where Barack Obama is sitting, it’s an historic presidential achievement.

Still, the reality: Led by a larger-than-life president whose public support sat at 69% on that famous Inauguration Day, the Democratic Party, like a dying star, may be collapsing into a handful of urban redoubts such as New York, L.A., San Francisco, Boston and the D.C. metropolitan area. Don’t be surprised if the next successful president decides that a more modest agenda and less face time with America is a higher percentage path to retaining Congress and his presidency.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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