President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during his end-of-the-year news conference in the Brady Press Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. Obama is scheduled to depart later for his home state of Hawaii for his annual Christmas vacation trip. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Updated: January 30, 2014 6:40AM
If a panic button existed in the offices of vulnerable Democrats in Congress right now, they might be pressing it so often it wouldn’t have time to reset.
A new CNN poll last week found that support for Obamacare is down to an all-time low of 35 percent. That helps explain the dramatic partisan reversal in another question CNN asked — about which party respondents would vote for in their congressional district. Two months ago, Democrats had a 50-42 percent lead on that critical “generic ballot” question. Now, Republicans have taken a 49-44 lead. Other private polls taken in the last few days confirm the trend of the CNN poll.
Of course, Democratic leaders insist that Obamacare won’t hurt their party in the 2014 elections. Rep. Nancy Pelosi told a conference call with reporters recently that the bill was “worth the trouble, it’s going to be a glorious thing.” She insisted it would help Democrats pick up House seats next year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t rhapsodize about Obamacare, but he still insisted to The Hill newspaper on Dec. 18 that “for sure it will be a net positive” in the elections.
Pelosi and Reid have a point: A lot can happen politically over the next 10 months. The economy could pick up significantly, although that’s unlikely given all of the economic uncertainty President Barack Obama has injected into business decisionmaking. Obamacare might stabilize and start to report enough success stories that public confidence improves, although that’s more likely to happen after the midterm elections than before it. Republicans in some key states could repeat some of their 2012 mistakes: They could nominate either inartful disasters (think Todd Akin) or establishment moderates who prompt some tea party voters to drift into backing third-party candidates (think Denny Rehberg of Montana, who saw a Democratic senator win re-election with 48.6 percent of the vote while a Libertarian won nearly 7 percent).
But then again, things could always get worse for Democrats. At this same point before the 2010 midterms, Democrats held a six-point advantage in the generic-ballot test. Then Obamacare was rammed through Congress in the spring of 2010 and, as its details came to be known, Democrats became more unpopular. In the November elections it was Republicans who won the nationwide House vote by six points, picking up an astonishing 63 seats.
What worries Democrats the most is that their base voters will be unenthusiastic about voting in a year when Obama isn’t himself on the ballot. The CNN poll has some evidence backing up that fear. It finds that only 22 percent of Democrats are currently extremely or very enthusiastic about voting. At the same time, 36 percent of Republicans can’t wait to find a polling booth and register their discontent.
Obama is, as of now, a drag on Democratic candidates. A full 55 percent of adults say they are more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who opposes Obama than for one who backs his program.
Numbers like that can have a real impact in swing states. Take Colorado, which was a key to Obama’s victory in 2012 when he won it with 51.5 percent of the vote. But this month’s Quinnipiac poll found Obama’s approval in the state at just 36 percent. That has helped make Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s seat competitive. His “deserves re-election” number has tumbled down to 41 percent, with 47 percent now saying he doesn’t deserve a second term.
Right now, Democratic control of the House looks more out of reach than ever and the Democrats’ Senate majority is more in jeopardy than ever before. So far, Democrats are relying on patchwork fixes to Obamacare and they are refusing to address the internal contradictions of the Rube Goldberg machine they’ve built. We’ll see just how long Democrats who see themselves as vulnerable to defeat continue to accept the “happy talk” of leaders like Pelosi and Reid. My guess is that their survival instinct will eventually trump Democratic unity.
John Fund is a national affairs columnist for National Review Online, where this column was posted.