Economy Sets Up Democrats for Autumn of Discontent: Albert Hunt

Over the past several months, a handful of high-profile Senate races, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois and Nevada, have tilted in the Democrats’ direction. This has sparked hope in President Barack Obama’s party that the November elections may not be so bad after all.

It’s a mirage. All these changes are due to sui generis Republican woes. Today, it’s an even bet Republicans will pick up the 39 House seats necessary to take control and gain a net of more than a half-dozen Senate seats.

What’s lethal for Democrats is that the election is being framed by the economy, and views are locking in, with voters getting more, not less, pessimistic.

Last week’s Bloomberg poll of Americans underscored the deep and pervasive economic pessimism. Most voters say they think the country is really off on the wrong track and remains in a recession, even though the downturn actually ended last September.

A couple groups are especially unsettling for the president and Democrats. Less than one in five independents says the country is on the right track, and a plurality gives Obama negative ratings. In 2008, Obama carried the independent vote 52 percent to 44 percent.

Obama captured 56 percent of women age 30 to 59, who also were major supporters of Democratic congressional candidates in 2006 and 2008. In the survey, more of these women in that age bracket say they think the economy is getting worse rather than better, and more believe that personally they are worse off than when Obama became president.

Economic Performance

Ray Fair, an economist at New Haven, Connecticut-based Yale University who projects electoral results based primarily on economic performance, currently sees Democrats winning 50.5 percent of the House popular vote, which would probably be enough for the party to retain control, though sharply down from the current 255 to 178 split (with two vacancies). This is predicated, he says, on “reasonably strong” economic growth in the third quarter.

Currently, the consensus forecast is for growth of a little less than 3 percent, which probably would reduce Fair’s forecast for Democrats.

Ann Selzer, the Des Moines, Iowa, pollster who conducted the Bloomberg survey, says it will be exceedingly hard to reverse these perceptions about the economy over the next three and a half months. “If Democrats had a bullet that would create jobs without adding to the deficit, maybe,” she says, emphasizing maybe, “that would be an issue to run on.”

The smartest and most credible political strategists from both parties analyze the politics similarly.

Focus on Jobs

“This election is mostly driven by the economy,” says John Weaver, a Republican strategist and former top adviser to that party’s 2008 presidential nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona. “The White House, for reasons inexplicable to me, has chosen not to focus on jobs and the economy; nothing matters more, and Obama doesn’t strike a very empathetic pose at times.”

Geoffrey Garin, one of the top Democratic pollsters and political advisers, says this drives his concerns. “The lack of optimism that people are feeling about the economy really sets the tone for this election,” he says.

The gap between the reality of an economy, which, while struggling, is rebounding from the depths and the public’s perception that it is worse than before reflects communications shortcomings as well as events beyond the control of either the president or his party.

Stimulus Spending

Last week, the administration claimed that its 2009 economic stimulus package saved between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs. Many respected private analysts, such as Mark Zandi, chief economist at New York-based Moody’s Analytics Inc., concur.

The public disagrees, costing Democrats a traditional advantage. “Stimulus has become a code word for overspending and deficits, not job creation,” Weaver says. “Democrats have lost that debate amongst swing voters.”

Talk to voters about the stimulus and it’s not uncommon for them to start railing about bailing out the banks or rescuing the inept auto companies. There is less talk about programs that prevented teachers or cops from being laid off or created green jobs.

Garin suspects that the BP Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been a double negative whammy for Obama. It has distracted the White House’s focus from the overarching economic issue. And voters figure that the spill itself has substantial economic consequences.

‘Angry Everywhere’

“People are angry everywhere, from border to border, coast to coast,” Garin worries.

That is apparent in election expert Stu Rothenberg’s recent calculation that 79 House contests are in play or competitive in the November election. Of those, 67 are held by Democrats and while there is concentration in some states -- seven in New York, five in Ohio -- it’s national in scope, affecting Democratic-held seats in 35 states.

So why are Democrats doing better in those handful of Senate races, including Nevada, where Majority Leader Harry Reid was written off for dead in May? The answer is self-inflicted Republican wounds. These are caused either by candidates taking politically unpopular positions, such as privatizing Social Security, or by the party’s purging of its strongest candidates, as in Florida, where it’s possible that Governor Charlie Crist will win as an independent, after being driven out of his party’s primary by a more conservative candidate.

Trending Republican

At the same time, there are at least as many Senate races, including Washington, Wisconsin, California, North Carolina and Indiana, that have moved more in the Republicans’ direction.

Yet Weaver, who expects his party to have a banner November, says the gains may not be enduring and may even signal problems in 2012.

“We’re still the party of the angry white man, and we seem to have not learned anything about reaching out to new voters, Hispanics or younger people,” he says. “Even with our success in November, we’re creating a huge deficit structurally going into the next presidential election.”

That won’t much matter, he says, in the midterm elections. Voters now seem eager to punish the incumbent party for their economic insecurities.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Albert R. Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.

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