Election 2014: Democrats Take the Lead on Social Issues, Obama Drags His Party Down



With less than 50 days until the 2014 midterm election, the race for the biggest prize—control of the Senate—is running awfully close. Republicans, who are almost certain to pick up several seats in November, ran ahead in most of the forecasts throughout the summer.

But in recent weeks, Democrats have narrowed the gap. The Washington Post's election model now gives Democrats a 51 percent chance to hold the Senate. The current RealClearPolitics no-toss-up map projects that Republicans will end up with 50 seats in the Senate. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight model gives Republicans a 53 percent chance of picking up the Senate.

Essentially, it's a dead heat, and despite early predictions of a GOP wave, it looks rather like voters aren't particularly enthusiastic about either party this year. Obama's approval ratings are low, but Republicans don't have much to run on except disapproval of the president. In a variety of ways, it's rough terrain for both parties. 

Democrats increasingly have an edge on social issues. Opinions have shifted over the decades, and voting coalitions have changed, and there are multiple signs that, after decades in which social and cultural issues favored Republicans, Democrats are finally gaining an edge. For one thing, the party is highlighting its stances on contraception, abortion, and gay marriage. In Colorado, for example, Sen. Mark Udall's campaign is built almost entirely on social issues. It might even be working: Udall currently has a 3.7 point lead on his opponent, Republican Cory Gardener, according to the RealClearPolitics (RCP) poll average. But even if Udall loses, it's clear that social issues—and contraception in particular—are where Democrats feel very comfortable fighting. That Democrats want this fight now, in a midterm election with an older and more conservative electorate, suggests that the politics are only going to shift further in their direction in 2016.

The other sign that the ground is shifting is that Republicans aren't engaging on these fights—at least not like they used to. In Florida, a swing state that frequently offers a glimpse of the national mood, Republican Gov. Rick Scott declined to respond to a question about same-sex marriage. Republicans are openly discussing a push to make contraception available over-the-counter. Social issues used to be the wedge concerns that Republicans used to split Democratic voters.

President Obama is a drag on his own party. There are two related parts to this. The first is that—and this will be news to almost no one—Republicans really don't like the president, and they plan to vote accordingly. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll from earlier this month, 62 percent of Republicans say that when they cast their votes for Congress later this year, one reason "will be to express opposition to Obama."

That brings us to the second part, which is that Democrats aren't particularly enthusiastic about their own side.  Less than half of Democrats—just 42 percent—say that their congressional vote will be intended to support President Obama, according to the same Post-ABC poll. Overall, as RCP's polling average shows, President Obama's approval rating has been growing steadily worse for more than a year (with a spike last fall during the Obamacare exchange fiasco). RCP's average now puts disapproval at 53.9 percent, two points shy of the high it hit in November of 2013. The big concern this election amongst Democrats is that their voters simply won't show up, hence Bill Clinton's message in Iowa this week: Democrats should not sit this one out. 

The economy isn't great for Democrats—but Republicans can't seem to capitalize on it. By most accounts, the still-sluggish economy is the top issue for voters this year. And yet in the states and races where it matters most, neither party has the advantage. 

Politico polled likely voters in close races about which party was trusted more to handle the economy and found respondents were split: 36 percent picked Republicans, 36 percent picked Democrats, and another 28 percent said they weren't sure. Voters in battleground states, which tend to be more conservative, may not have a clear preference for which party they trust on the economy, but a majority seem to be frustrated by President Obama's handling of economic issues: In the same Politico poll, 57 percent disapproved of his "economic leadership."

It's difficult to discern what the Republican party is actually for at this point. When conservative flagship publication National Review runs an unsigned editorial pushing Republicans to propose an actual governing agenda—to just have one, at all—you know there's a problem. It's possible, of course, to find individual Republican legislators—folks like Mike Lee and Rand Paul in the Senate, or Paul Ryan in the House—who have strong, identifiable policy commitments. But as a party, it's hard to identify an agenda other than opposing President Obama, and whatever it is he wants to do (except, possibly, escalate American involvement in conflict in the Middle East).

Look at the continuing resolution deal that's moving through Congress right now: As Nicole Kaeding of the Cato Institute notes, it takes a stand on almost nothing, extending the authorization of the Ex-Im bank, declining to make the Internet tax moratorium, and keeping discretionary spending levels constant. Avoiding a serious shutdown fight was necessary after last year's fall showdown, but it's hard to find an election-year agenda anywhere.

To some extent, that just reflects the fractured and uncertain interests of the party's voters, who don't quite seem to know what they want either. But GOP voters haven't exactly been given a lot to latch onto in the Obama era. The long-promised Obamacare replacement plan, for example, never arrived, and now Republicans politicians don't really know how to respond to questions about what to do with the law's coverage expansion in place. 

What we have, then, is a sort of "meh" election. Democrats are attempting to turn out their base by pushing them to vote against Republicans on social issues, and Republicans are attempting to motivate their voters by focusing entirely on opposition to President Obama. But there's almost no enthusiasm for either party.